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How Satellite is Enabling More Comprehensive Flight Tracking

By Juliet Van Wagenen | September 30, 2016
      Mary McMillan, vice president of aviation safety and operational services at Inmarsat, speaks about upcoming flight tracking requirements during the Avionics for NextGen conference on Sept. 28, 2016. Photo: Vince Lim/Via Satellite

      Mary McMillan, vice president of aviation safety and operational services at Inmarsat, speaks about upcoming flight tracking requirements during the Avionics for NextGen conference on Sept. 28, 2016. Photo: Vince Lim/Via Satellite

      [Via Satellite 09-30-2016] The disappearances of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in 2014 and the earlier Air France 447 have triggered new global regulations around tracking flights. With the need for more robust aircraft tracking highlighted by even more recent aircraft disappearances such as Egyptair flight MS804, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) finalized Suggested and Recommended Practices (SARPs) around commercial flight tracking late last year. The recommendations, known as the Global Aeronautical Distress Safety System (GADSS), are calling for 15-minute position reporting in normal aircraft conditions and one-minute position reporting for aircraft that are “under distress.”

      With requirements for normal aircraft mode position reporting going into effect in 2018, and a distressed-mode position reporting compliance date set for 2021, regulatory organizations across the globe are scrambling to set their own versions of the rules and industry is releasing a slew of new flight tracking solutions. During a panel surrounding flight tracking at this week’s Avionics for NextGen conference in Dulles, Virginia, experts from Aireon, Inmarsat, Thomas Global Systems and Harris spoke to the evolving recommendations for flight tracking and how current solutions, which often rely on satellite backbone, can allow airlines to comply.


      Satellite-Based Solutions

      In November 2015 the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) adopted a resolution to allocate radiofrequency spectrum for global flight tracking in civil aviation. The frequency band 1087.7 to 1092.3 MHz was allocated to the aeronautical “Earth-to-space,” Mobile Satellite Service (MSS) for satellite reception of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) emissions from aircraft transmitters, according to the ITU. This most heavily impacted Aireon, a company working on enabling a satellite-based air traffic surveillance solution that will become operational in 2018. Aireon is leveraging the new Iridium Next 66-satellite, Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellation that is said to be able to deliver real-time aircraft information to Air Traffic Controllers (ATC) without requiring aircraft to change or update any existing avionics.

      Just this week, the company announced a partnership with flight tracking data company FlightAware that will combine data from Aireon’s space-based ADS-B network and FlightAware’s flight tracking web interface and data — including origin, destination, flight plan route, position and estimated time of arrival. Qatar Airways has already signed on to be the launch customer for this option.

      “Aireon will be putting a specialized 1090 MHz payload receiver on the new infrastructure,” said Vincent Capezutto, chief technology officer and vice president of engineering at Aireon during the panel. “It satisfies components of GADSS, although it depends on what the automatic distress requirements will turn out to be for each airline. But it will enable one-minute reporting all the time, so airlines won’t even have to worry about changing it to a different update interval for distress reporting.”

      He also notes that FlightAware has a set of parameters that an operator can set to indicate a distress situation, which could enable airlines to comply with that distress reporting aspect.

      “The requirements are ever-evolving, they are not solidified and I think it’s important to point out that you could have a system or systems that are more tailor-able to the needs of an airline as the requirements evolve,” he said.

      But Aireon isn’t the only satellite-based solution set to enter the market. FlightRadar24 in partnership with Airbus Defense and Space and Gom Space is also experimenting with nanosatellites to collect ADS-B data from flights transiting the Atlantic Ocean outside their terrestrial coverage area and integrating that data into their network to create a commercial flight-tracking service. Having successfully tested the solution in July, the companies are moving forward to help eliminate flight-tracking gaps globally.

      But as the systems themselves evolve, it is likely going to be difficult for airlines to continue to build on tracking capabilities while staying in line with requirements that call for global, low-power solutions.

      “The Iridium satcom solution, because the satellite is a lower power and worldwide solution, it meets [current] requirements. Future requirements are going to create a larger problem, with systems such as the virtual cockpit voice recorder, flight data recorder, even flight deck camera systems they want in real time, they aren’t going to be served by the low power version of iridium and that will require an L-band connection or a Ka- or Ku-band. Iridium is also coming out with Iridium Next, which may have enough bandwidth,” noted Mark Thompson, CEO of Thompson Aerospace.

      With more bandwidth comes more power, however, which will likely overstep current requirements. This means that solutions that seem to be good for the first step are probably not the solutions that are going to be viable in the long term.

      “There’s going to be a tradeoff, so maybe hybrid solutions will be best. You have a small, simple box for basic communications and then a high bandwidth solution that would allow you to service some of the higher end needs,” Thompson proposed.