Aircraft Tracking in the a Post-MH370 World
After the disappearance of MH370 two years ago, airlines and regulators are grappling with new and upcoming aircraft-tracking standards, and what technologies will fulfill them.
The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March 2014 following the crash of Air France Flight 447 five years earlier, prompted a new push to scrutinize global tracking of commercial aircraft flying within remote areas of the world. “The aviation industry has seen dramatic improvements as a result of tragedies,” observes former United Airlines pilot Mary McMillan, vice president of Inmarsat’s aviation safety and operational services.
“Events like MH370 focus the world’s attention and expose areas that previously were not seen to be high risk before.”
Over the last two years the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has led industry efforts to establish a global standard for aircraft tracking. The United Nations body tasked with overseeing aviation safety is now asking States and governments to require passenger planes to be fitted with systems enabling them to report their position every 15 minutes for normal operations, and every minute when in distressed conditions, by November 2018.
With a unified standard in place mandating normal aircraft tracking by November 2018, momentum continues to build to make global aircraft tracking a reality. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) and ICAO have worked together on simulations and tabletop exercises to ensure that airlines and operators can meet this tracking standard in real-world conditions. That was the purpose behind the Normal Aircraft Tracking Implementation Initiative (NATII). Now, ICAO and IATA are turning that same level of focus to the distress-tracking standard that the two are looking to roll out in January 2021. The organizations will test this standard through a new set of exercises in NATII, designed to ensure that the distress-tracking standard, too, can be supported operationally.
This past March the ICAO Council adopted new provisions around distress tracking, focusing on three key areas. First is the requirement for aircraft to carry autonomous distress tracking devices, which can autonomously transmit location information at least once every minute in distress circumstances. Second is the requirement for aircraft to be equipped with a means to have flight recorder data recovered and made available in a timely manner.
Last, ICAO will look to extend the duration of cockpit voice recordings to 25 hours so that they cover all phases of flight for all types of operations.
According to Atholl Buchan, IATA director of flight operations, both ICAO and IATA have shown “strong cooperation” in making sure the latest standard addressing distress tracking is thoroughly tested and validated before January 2021.
Below, players from the United States, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom weigh in on the issues confronting the industry as the deadline for meeting the normal standards for global aircraft tracking inches closer. Most agree that existing technology can address the world’s need for reliable global plane tracking, though they differ on what the best course forward should be.
“One of the recommendations we made was that ICAO encourage States to increase the use of surveillance technologies in their respective airspace when it becomes available,” says Buchan. “Many [Air Navigation Service Providers] ANSPs with [Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Contract] ADS-C capability have already taken the initiative to reduce their report time to 14 minutes, and this is a win-win for the industry in that it both complies with the normal aircraft tracking requirement and allows for an increase in traffic on those routes due to reduced separation requirements,” says Buchan. He further notes that “a suitably equipped aircraft under the 2020 U.S. [Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast] ADS-B mandate is capable of providing an equivalent level of surveillance to radar.”
ICAO NATII has concluded a series of meetings where a proposal for a new risk-based standard has been submitted to ICAO Air Navigation Commission for consideration with the normal aircraft-tracking standard. This clarity is needed since following the guidelines as written could have “unintended consequences that would be quite draconian,” Buchan says. ICAO is writing follow-up recommendations that will allow concessions and risk assessments to be made. “The challenges we face as an industry around aircraft tracking are a commercial issue, not a technological one,” says Mark van Berkel, president and CEO of TrueNorth Avionics, an airborne connectivity company based in Canada. “What is the value of tracking to an aircraft operator? They have to see the value.”
TrueNorth Avionics has offered a tracking product since 2007 using ADS-C, and in fact, in 2014, became the first company to receive the FAA TSO-C159a certified data link unit for the Future Air Navigation System (FANS)-over-Iridium capability.
Another small technology company with existing tracking capabilities is Auckland, New Zealand-based Spidertracks. This firm showcased its tracking tech to ICAO NATII during an industry day last fall. The exercise demonstrated what existing technologies were available today to track aircraft.
Dave Blackwell, Spidertracks CEO, says his company currently provides its GPS Iridium-based tracking solution in 100 countries, and mostly serves the general aviation market, corporate jets, and operators of oil and gas exploration. “We do a lot of business in the Outback of Australia, South America and Africa where they have very poor infrastructure and even secondary surveillance radar and search and rescue infrastructure is very sub-standard,” Blackwell says.
Ironically, Spidertracks was born in the aftermath of a high-profile helicopter crash in New Zealand a decade ago. The pilot crashed about 30 minutes after takeoff but no one began looking for him until eight to 10 hours later when he did not land as expected.
“What went on from there was probably the most inefficient Search and Rescue [SAR] effort the country had ever seen,” recalls Blackwell. “At that time the public were gobsmacked that an aircraft could just be lost like that. Almost 10 years later we saw the exact same response on a global scale with MH370.”
Global Flight Tracking
Inmarsat, the world leader in ADS-C with its SwiftBroadband Service, contends that “the development of flight-tracking requirements is essentially building on what we have always done in aviation, which is flight follow,” says McMillan. In support of the NATII effort, Inmarsat and Air Services Australia conducted a trial that tested ADS-C’s flight-following effectiveness over routes in the Pacific. Air Services Australia controls 11 percent of the world’s airspace. ADS-C uses onboard aircraft systems to automatically provide position, altitude, speed, intent and meteorological data sent in a report to an Air Traffic Service Unit (ATSU) or Airline Operational Center (AOC) ground system for surveillance and route conformance monitoring.
The trial, which was done in phases between January and June 2015, assessed the impact of implementing ADS-C satellite position report intervals of 15 minutes or less. The evaluation used Qantas and Virgin Australia wide-body aircraft and eventually extended the trial to all ADS-C-equipped aircraft operating in the Melbourne, Brisbane, Honiara and Nauru Flight Information Regions (FIRs).
Currently, the regulatory requirements are established by the separation standards in a particular airspace — for example, 15 minutes for a 30-30 (30 mile by 30 mile) separation standard. “Of note is the fact that these position reports were initiated by the ANSP. More frequent reporting, for example, every two minutes, is possible if needed,” states McMillan. The findings, published in a report in August 2015, found that increasing ADS-C reporting generated by [Air Traffic Control] ATC requests every 14 minutes would meet/cover “90 to 95 percent of the traffic flying oceanic routes,” she says.
The Coming of ADS-B
When asked if he thought current solutions on the market can address the aircraft tracking challenge, Cyriel Kronenburg, vice president of Aviation Services for Aireon, indicated that existing technologies “would be sufficient — there is no need for extra avionics, as long as whatever recommendations are performance-based, and don’t require airlines to suddenly put new equipment in the aircraft.”
He says where Aireon is unique in that, is it has a solution already tied to surveillance. “We are going to do it anyway, and it will apply to every ADS-B-equipped aircraft, which we expect to be very close to 90 to 100 percent of the world,” says Kronenburg. His biggest concerns with ADS-C are that it “is not a global coverage solution, and you need avionics to do ADS-C, which not all airlines or aircraft have.” He also considers ADS-C “slow” with technical limitations.
In 2018, Aireon will offer space-based ADS-B surveillance over the Iridium NEXT constellation. Kronenburg’s argument in favor of space-based ADS-B is that airlines don’t need a tracking solution if aircraft are already under surveillance with ADS-B technology.
“Surveillance is much better than tracking because it is used for real-time separation of aircraft.” Kronenburg says while Aireon’s primary business is air traffic surveillance, the data it will be collecting would benefit ANSPs looking to track aircraft position. Aireon plans to make the last known location of a plane available through its 24/7 service center housed in the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA). Aireon says it will offer this free of charge to the industry in an emergency — not just to customers.
McMillan says that the development of the new tracking standards are shaping how the industry ultimately “understands the status of the aircraft in terms of the mechanical function. That’s essentially flight data streaming — or the ability to stream critical flight information while the aircraft is still in flight.” Such intelligence would be “a big step forward in helping us understand what problems might be and what other resources on the ground can help,” she adds.
Integration of SAR Efforts Globally
Inmarsat envisions both flight-data streaming and the ability to integrate with rescue coordination centers. That is a big benefit to the industry, says McMillan, who compares today’s SAR infrastructure to a “patchwork of communications.” She notes that while ANSPs are obligated to communicate with rescue coordination centers if they are aware of a distress situation, the actual practice is not followed through with consistency around the world. Global aircraft tracking capabilities will change that.
“My hope is that the industry takes advantage of some of the newer digital technologies in order to create this increased awareness of the situational aspects of aircraft — certainly we are technologically capable — we can do it today and I hope the industry actually takes advantage of it to create this increased situational awareness around how we position aircraft but also the state of the aircraft,” McMillan says.
Panasonic Avionics director Jeff Rex also is a big proponent for what satcom can deliver, calling it “the big differentiator in the arena of tracking.” For one, it allows the pilot to communicate back and forth if there is an anomaly or question. “Satcom from our standpoint is key because it enables airlines to tailor the tracking and the communications to their needs so it becomes more of an operational tool and a benefit to the airline itself,” he says. “It enhances their operations rather than just checking the compliance box.”
Rex says costs associated with traditional flight deck satcom have been one of the industry’s challenges, which prompted Panasonic to select Iridium as a second satcom system that complements its Ku offering. Iridium supports Panasonic’s Flight Link solution, which enables pilot-based voice and data communication anywhere in the world. It also includes global tracking and position information supporting ICAO’s aircraft tracking recommendations. Both van Berkel and Rex consider space-based ADS-B a major step forward in making aircraft tracking a global reality.
Adds Rex: “ADS-B and Iridium NEXT going up with a broader band as well as adding bandwidth and capability to all our satcom solutions will take the expectations of connectivity we have in our everyday lives on the ground into the air.” AVS