MH370 – ICAO’s proposals for aircraft tracking and surveillance

Written by: Alan Corner
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Last week I had the privilege of chairing a rather sensitive session*** at ATC Global in Beijing, looking at what is happening in terms of surveillance and tracking in the wake of the MH370 tragedy. The session discussed the work of ICAO's Ad-Hoc Working Group on Aircraft Tracking, IATA's Tracking Task Force and also considered what China is doing to ensure that all aircraft are able to be tracked. It also discussed the technologies available now and what is being developed.

If you can judge the interest in a presentation by how many in the audience hold up their smartphone to photograph every slide, then the highlight for many was the first ever public presentation of the initial results of the ICAO Ad-Hoc Working Group by its Chairman, Mr Henk Hof. He set out ICAO's proposals for a Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS) taking lessons from the maritime industry's GMDSS. He outlined the working group's approach, starting by analysing key areas such as aircraft systems, air traffic management, search and rescue systems and information management and then producing a number of high-level requirements for a future 'system' and a proposed concept of operation. The proposed conops appears, at least in theory, to be fairly straightforward. Airlines will continue to track their aircraft during normal operations ('Aircraft Tracking-Normal'); abnormal events would then trigger more frequent reporting to alert the airline to the problem ('Aircraft Tracking-Abnormal') and, if the situation worsens, 'Autonomous Distress Tracking' is triggered using systems independent of the aircraft's own systems or power supply. In the worst-case scenario, the final step is the automatic deployment of a flight recorder which is attached to the external surface of an aircraft.

The concept is performance-based and does not define the technology or systems to be used. Rather, it throws down a gauntlet to suppliers to propose solutions. SITA and Inmarsat presented a range of technologies that are available now and could be adapted to meet the requirements, although it is not clear which approach the industry will take.

What is clear is that tragedies such as MH370 and the earlier loss of AF447 have galvanized the world to find solutions that, whilst not preventing such tragedies, will certainly help in search, rescue and recovery operations – and to help learn lessons for the future. In the words of Henk Hof, "Aviation is safe because it has the culture to react and take lessons from rare events". This is certainly a good example of that.

***Henk Hof's and other presentations made during the session will be made available on the ATC Global website in due course.

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Alan Corner
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