Global Aircraft Tracking: lost in a connected world

Written by: Devan Panchal
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We must understand the events surrounding the loss of AF447 and MH370 are extremely rare and abnormal. Despite the rarity, immense political pressure is driving the search for a Global Aeronautical Distress Safety System (GADSS).

Last month, I was fortunate enough to be involved in round table discussions with key European stakeholders on Global Aircraft Tracking (GAT). The crux of the talks was to understand how GAT fits into the wider ATM surveillance strategy and also to consider whether future technical solutions might have their own implementation risks.

Solutions and challenges facing the industry

At the heart of aircraft tracking lie two proposed solutions, namely ADS-C and space-based ADS-B. Both are able to meet ICAO's proposed flight standards and address the first two stages of the GADSS concept i.e. tracking under normal and abnormal condition at timely intervals.

  1. ADS-C technology is equipped on over 90% of transoceanic aircraft and allows aircraft to be tracked (near real-time) at pre-determined intervals, including those recommended by ICAO's flight tracking standard. Such has been the success, Airservices Australia now tracks aircraft across all oceanic airspace managed by Australia every 14 minutes and has suggested that other ANSPs carry out their own evaluations.
  2. Space-based ADS-B technology is primarily intended to be used for providing and enhancing surveillance services in global blind spots (oceanic/polar/remote) where terrestrial ATC infrastructure cannot be implemented. Expected to become operational in 2018, the solution can be applied for tracking purposes as it uses ADS-B capable Mode S transponders to communicate with receivers on satellites. Most modern commercial aircraft are Mode S equipped as standard and those which are not are required to comply with equipage mandates in place in North America, Europe and Asia Pacific. The solution is of great interest to ANSPs which manage vast expanses of oceanic airspace and has been championed by the European Parliament as the way forward. Most recently, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) allocated radio spectrum for GAT using satellite-based systems.

ICAO is expected to formally adopt the reporting standards in November 2015 with the mandate becoming applicable to airlines as soon as 2016. The dates are currently the subject of lobbying. However, ICAO's own working group, the NATII (the Normal Aircraft Tracking Implementation Initiative) would like those dates to be pushed back to 2018 – which would allow space-based ADS-B to be validated prior to use. The key is to ensure that airspace users are able to select the best option for them (which probably depends on the current equipage).

The NATII recently released a report identifying existing practices used by operators to determine the location of their aircraft when operating in oceanic areas. Through a number of table top exercises based on current technology in real-world "what-if" scenarios, concerns were raised surrounding the practical implementation of Normal Aircraft Tracking (NAT). For example, increased workload for the flight crew in fine-tuning high frequency communications in order to provide manual position reporting at 15-minute intervals during ADS-C failure.

Are we there yet?

So far, we have talked about the core tracking options available to airspace users for routine aircraft tracking. The other piece of the puzzle remaining to be addressed which completes the GADSS concept is agreement on the technology to be used in aircraft location reporting in case of emergencies (i.e. plane crash). Multiple Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs) are mandated on modern aircraft and are capable of providing aircraft location to Search and Rescue services within a 120m accuracy, provided they are activated correctly and transmit accordingly (i.e. upon impact or underwater). They do not appear to have worked correctly in either the AF447 or MH370 disasters. Making sure they are more robust could significantly reduce the time required to locate missing aircraft in remote areas ensuring more time is dedicated to rescuing rather than searching.

Losing an aircraft is not acceptable. Current technology can track aircraft in most remote and oceanic airspace; space-based ADS-B will provide an alternative and fill in the "gaps". This won't help find MH370, but aviation is responding fast to the challenge of making sure it doesn't happen again.

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