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An Operator’s Guide to Flight Tracking Solutions

An operator’s guide to flight tracking solutions on the market and in the works as airlines race to meet upcoming ICAO requirements for 15-minute reporting in 2018, and automatic distress tracking in 2021

Flight tracking solutions have been popping up right and left since the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) early 2016 adoption of aircraft tracking provisions spurred by the loss of Malaysia Airlines airliner MH370 in 2014. As part of ICAO’s Normal Aircraft Tracking Implementation Initiative (NATII), the new provisions, which are soon expected to be adopted by local aviation authorities and made into requirements, are designed to prevent the loss of commercial aircraft position reporting when an aircraft is experiencing distress or flying in remote airspace with no radar coverage.

As of now, the recommendations around flight tracking are only industry standards developed by ICAO throughout most of the world, not actual mandates, and each country’s aviation authority could potentially put forth requirements that reflect different readings of the ICAO recommendations. For now, ICAO has recommended that by November 2018, all airlines know where
each of its aircraft are located while in flight at 15 minute intervals during normal operations. Furthermore, by 2021, ICAO recommends that each new aircraft coming off the production line must have the ability to autonomously broadcast its position at intervals of one minute or less should it enter a distress mode — a term still in the process of being defined by ICAO and local aviation authorities. In March 2016, ICAO adopted these initiatives and laid out Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) to address this Global Aeronautical Distress Safety System (GADSS) Autonomous Distress Tracking (ADT) concept.

Photo courtesy of SITA.

“Anybody can meet the 2018 recommendation, it’s is fairly simple and almost every widebody aircraft in service today can meet the requirement. The 2021 requirement has everybody upside down, however. That’s the [standard] that will require the system to operate on loss of power, the equipment has to be autonomous and unable to be disconnected by the flight crew and it has to be able to survive a structural breakup of the aircraft. The 2021 standard is going to require [airlines] to meet all of these expectations that require you to get data off the aircraft at all times,” says Mark Thompson, president of Thompson Aerospace.

But how are airlines and solutions providers preparing for these coming flight tracking standards and what will it take to comply? Here, we lay out the flight tracking solutions already on the market or in the works, what airlines will have to do to equip with each solution and how providers are structuring capabilities to allow for evolving requirements.

Using What’s Onboard

As one of the first solutions to come onto the market in January 2015, SITAONAIR’s FlightTracker has been in the works for more than four years and resides on SITAONAIR’s FlightMessenger platform, installed on over 100 carriers, globally. The solution works by combining aircraft positions from multiple available sources already on the aircraft and displaying that through a map-based user interface. These multiple data sources include: Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) datalink, Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), and the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Contract (ADS-C) application of the Future Air Navigation System (FANS) that airlines use for oceanic Air Traffic Control (ATC) communications. This information is pooled with air traffic control radar data, terrestrial and satellite feeds, and an airline’s flight plans in order to provide real-time aircraft position monitoring over remote and oceanic regions.

“FlightTracker’s alerting capabilities constantly monitor position reports received from the aircraft and will alert operators when
aircraft stop sending position reports within the expected periods.
FlightTracker will use FANS ADS-C and ACARS to automatically fill any gaps in terrestrial ADS-B and RADAR coverage, including areas where ANSP’s are not using FANS,” says Paul Gibson, SITAONAIR Aircom portfolio director.

Moreover, the company announced a partnership in late November with space-based ADS-B provider Aireon and flight tracking company FlightAware to provide Aireon’s space-based data to those airlines that equip with SITAONAIR’s Aircom solution. Starting in 2018, SITAONAIR airline customers with ADS-B Out equipped aircraft will have access to 100 percent global flight tracking data, in real time, through FlightTracker product. The satellite data aims to resolve any coverage gaps that exist in the product’s current coverage. The Aireon data will be delivered to SITAONAIR via FlightAware, which provides a secure streaming data feed of flight positions and flight status data via a combination of worldwide air traffic control data, ground-based ADS-B and aircraft datalink information.

Furthermore, the capability can also be automated in response to abnormal conditions being identified on board to give one minute
position reports, already meeting the requirements for “distress tracking,”according to Gibson. These conditions can, for example, be detected by capturing specific ACARS messages. FlightTracker also monitors flights and will provide alerts if the aircraft has deviated from its planned route and profile. In polar regions, the solution uses an Iridium satellite connection to provide
position updates.

The solution boasts 48 airlines and aircraft operators contracted
for the application. This includes customers such as Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines, two carriers already mandated by their corresponding aviation authorities to equip with 15-minute normal reporting and one-minute distress tracking. Malaysia-based airlines were required to equip with this capability by summer 2015 while Singapore’s domestic airlines were required to comply the following year, by summer 2016.

Singapore Airlines told Avionics Magazine that the company
chose to equip with FlightTracker as it offered minimal impact on current operations while enabling them to meet the immediate mandate.

Rockwell Collins’ MultiLink flight tracking service, which hit the market with launch customer AeroMexico in November 2015, similarly uses data sources already in service on aircraft to provide tracking data. It can currently meet the 15-minute position-reporting standard, and is laying out plans in line with ICAO’s SARPs that will enable distress tracking by Jan. 1, 2021. Much like SITAONAIR’s FlightTracker, ARINC MultiLink, currently in operation on 10 airlines, merges multiple data sources to report the location of an aircraft anywhere in the world, including High-Frequency Data Link (HFDL) performance data, ADS-C, ADS-B; U.S. Aircraft Situation Display to Industry (ASDI) radar data, Eurocontrol position information, and ACARS position reports. The solution has also been developed with the ability to incorporate future third-party data sources, which may include position data.

“We have been using the SITA Aircom server for many years
and it serves us well. FlightTracker is an added functionality for the Aircom server and allows us to perform 4-D/15-[minute] tracking with minimum transition training for our staff,” a Singapore Airlines spokesperson explains. As FlightTracker already uses Singapore’s current aircraft’s equipage for their tracking algorithm, the airline did not need to equip its aircraft with
additional devices. The only change necessary to enable the tracking was an upgrade to the airline’s computers to cope with the higher processing power needed for the FlightTracker software.

While equipping for the current mandate was fairly easy for the airline, the company also acknowledges that current FlightTracker version may not meet all the standards for upcoming GADSS recommendations. Therefore, the carrier is working closely with SITA toward that goal, which will hopefully allow them to fully comply when ICAO finalizes the requirements.

An illustration of Rockwell Collins’ MultiLink flight tracking servicePhoto courtesy of Rockwell Collins.

“What’s unique about HFDL is that it provides a polar route. When an aircraft flies over the North Pole, most satellites won’t be able to provide that position data, but with the HFDL we can,” explains Yun Chong, vice president of commercial aviation services for Rockwell Collins.

To address the high cost of bandwidth that often limits flight tracking technology, Chong says the solution uses “existing bandwidth” from the sources already transmitting signals from the plane, but aggregates them differently to provide 15-minute tracking. “All we’re doing is collecting the data and providing a tracking solution with sources that are already being utilized. If an aircraft has three of the six sources we’re using, the reporting can be brought down from 15-minute to 5-minute intervals, in theory,” Chong says. Rockwell Collins is also working on aggregating the data source feeds and creating a new display so it can be used in conjunction with the company’s existing message-handling and decision-making tools if airlines desire.

The company does not yet have a solution that would enable
one-minute distress tracking, but says they are working toward a solution that would meet the 2021 flight-tracking standard proposed by ICAO.

“ARINC’s history is very much service-data oriented, whereas
Rockwell Collins is very hardware oriented, so we’re looking at both solutions so that the avionics can be updated as well. We are also working on a whole new [Aeronautical Operational Control] AOC set that will update automatically within the aircraft as well for the airline within the MultiLink tracking tool,” says Chong. “It’s a moving target so to speak. It depends on what the solution will ultimately look like. Right now, they’re talking about distress
tracking, but the true definition of ‘distress’ will depend on the country’s reading of it.”

Making New Solutions to Meet New Standards

California-based Thompson Aerospace is skeptical when it
comes to solutions such as Rockwell Collins’ and SITAONAIR’s that use existing aircraft data to meet the standards. Thompson Aerospace has developed a new tracking solution that is reliant on Iridium satellites and uses a cell phone-like device via a satellite radio to comply with both the 2018 and 2021 GADSS recommendations. The system gathers all aircraft data in a constant stream and, if anything is outside normal parameters, sends an alert, according to Mark Thompson, president of Thompson Aerospace. The system, which only uses 2.5 watts of power and can also send messages using the ACARS network, is in
the process of being installed by two operators and is aiming for Standard Type Certificates (STCs) on the Boeing 767, 777 and MD10 by the first quarter of 2017.

“It is simple data-only Satcom module that is embedded in
our units. It is low bandwidth, but can stream the 88 data items at about once per 7 seconds. It only does this when we have an abnormal event that occurs. The ground station has logic and human control to allow the ground operators to determine what information should be sent,” explains Thompson.

He feels that a satellite-based solution has an advantage as
Iridium provides global coverage at low-power levels with multiple satellites. More importantly, Thompson is also suspicious of solutions that pull data from systems already on aircraft and argues that no systems currently on aircraft have the ability to fully meet the requirements.

“None of the equipment we have on planes today can protect
us against some of the events we had. There is no equipment on planes today that can meet all of the recommendations for ICAO,” Thompson argues, noting that both Malaysia Airlines MH370 and the earlier lost flight, Air France 447, which disappeared in June 2009, were outfitted with modern equipment and both were untraceable after their disappearance. “If we want a system that meets the recommendations coming out of ICAO, if that’s the goal, and we want to increase safety, then it’s just like ADS-B, we have to put another piece of equipment onboard.”

“Our system has the ability to do more than just tracking,
and if you want to do other items then we work out a data plan for this additional data, like if you want to send [Aircraft Condition Monitoring System] ACMS reports, fuel usage reports, etc. We do our business more like Amazon, you pay for the service you want, and that allows each operator flexibility. You want to monitor engine performance, you do that from our secure web interface, you can turn it on and off, and only pay for the data you use,” Thompson says, speaking to how the solution can mitigate the high costs of bandwidth that often plague flight tracking solutions.

Thompson Aerospace’s solution, while it requires installation, unlike SITAONAIR or other solutions, does allow airlines to remove the aircraft’s Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT), as their technology will render it redundant. Moreover, he claims that adding capability to a solution will render a service more useful to operators in the long run.

Integrating with Tracking Apps

A screen shot of the operator’s view of Airbus’ and FlightTracking24’s flight tracking solution, N-Tracking.Photo courtesy of Navblue.

In September 2016 live flight tracking company FlightAware
teamed with Aireon, a company working to provide global satellite-based ADS-B coverage, to introduce their minute-by-minute GlobalBeacon flight tracking solution. With Qatar Airways signed on as the launch customer for the solution,
GlobalBeacon will provide aircraft tracking capabilities starting in May 2017, and will begin 1-minute interval tracking by 2018 when Aireon’s space-based ADS-B network is scheduled to become operational.

According to FlightAware CEO Daniel Baker, airlines with aircraft equipped with ADS-B-capable transponders will be able to track their planes anywhere in the world on a minute-by-minute basis, with no other major aircraft hardware or software modification.

The solution accomplishes this by taking FlightAware’s
flight-following interface, which fuses data and surveillance from air traffic control systems in more than 50 countries, and pairs it with the global surveillance that Aireon will provide when it goes operational. The solution itself is a single-page, web-based dashboard that will be able to provide up-to-the-minute position reports on any 1090 MHz ADS-B transponder-equipped aircraft. On the GlobalBeacon dashboard, operators can create configurable alerts, which will trigger a notification to their operations center personnel as soon as an aircraft deviates from an intended flight path, stops transmitting location, or encounters another emergency or distress type situation.

“As long as you have an ADS-B transponder with a top-mounted
antenna, which basically every airliner has or will have, Aireon’s satellites will be able to receive that data. It’s exciting because we can enable your account and you get a worldwide fleet,” Baker told Avionics Magazine in an earlier interview.

Right now the GADSS standard doesn’t stipulate all of the
different criteria for an aircraft in distress, so FlightAware and Aireon are talking to their launch customer, Qatar Airways, as well as future prospective customers regarding what specific criteria the customers are interested in pursuing and testing. For now the companies are touting the solution as one that will meet the November 2018 standard, and serve as a stepping stone for the later 2021 distress-tracking standard.

Still in the works is Airbus’ solution, N-Tracking (formerly AirFlight), which the company is developing and testing in collaboration with live flight tracker FlightRadar24. NavBlue, a business unit of Airbus, will combine Flightradar24’s aircraft positional data along with other aircraft data and additional sources of information in the new flight-tracking platform, set to launch in January 2017. The solution is currently in beta onboard five commercial airlines and is being built around the 15-minute tracking standards, although the time reporting interval can be customized depending on the airline’s specifications, according to Shawn Mechelke, vice president of N-Software services at NavBlue.

“With the change in the GADSS standards, the system can
actually be used to interrogate the aircraft in distress every minute if it wanted to,” Mechelke told Avionics Magazine. “The way it is set up today we can meet those standards, right now. There’s really nothing we have to do, it is just receiving data and processing it.”

N-Tracking is also a web-based solution, enabling updates that won’t disrupt operations, according to Mechelke.

“All the other solutions have some kind of a thin client and
you have to install on a computer and then connect to the internet or your network to get data over that. What we were able to do here was build everything in a cloud environment where it can be run through any kind of browser,” says Mechelke, noting that this means that its possible to connect to the network anywhere that Wi-Fi is available.

He also believes a web-based solution will prove easier for
the operators as it will prevent the need for upgrades to happen from within the company. “When you have these web-based solutions you just basically fire up a browser and everything’s ready to go. It’s all been tested and it’s running. So, it makes it from a cost perspective to an end user a lot less to maintain inside these large operation centers,” he says.

Mechelke admits that tracking solutions still have “holes” in coverage, however, and is keen on plugging them with satellite coverage when it comes available through Aireon or others.

Airbus Defense and Space and FlightRadar24 have also tested
other ways to expand coverage with satellite tech. In July, Airbus and FligthRadar24 used Gomspace’s GOMX-3 nano-satellite to collected ADS-B data from flights transiting the Atlantic Ocean outside normal terrestrial coverage area and integrated that data into the Flightradar24 network, a first for any commercial flight tracking service. Data collected by the satellite was transmitted to a ground receiver and processed at the Airbus Defence and Space
ground segment, before being combined with schedule and route information, and displayed on Flightradar24.

The test is the first step towards integrating satellite-collected ADS-B data into FlightRadar24’s network, bringing the company closer to global ADS-B coverage, which could be intertwined into the N-Tracking solution for global coverage. AVS