SkyTrac satellite-based tracking spans the globe

 - January 14, 2008, 11:33 AM

The combination of GPS position, digital communications networks and the Internet has made possible–and affordable–a variety of products and services for continuous real-time tracking of aircraft fleets by dispatchers on the ground. Nowhere has such capability been more eagerly accepted than in the realm of helicopter flight operations, many of which are now using data-link services to keep close tabs on their aircraft at all times.

Datalink service provider SkyTrac Systems of Penticton, British Columbia, Canada, offers the OSAT-100 datalink radio, the main hardware component of a system that provides automatic position reporting, two-way messaging and other types of data transfer between aircraft operating anywhere in the world. Using a regular Internet connection on the ground and the Orbcomm low-earth-orbit satellite network in space, the OSAT-100 provides global coverage through the SkyTrac datalink service.

Kathleen Wallace, SkyTrac vice president of sales and marketing, said hundreds of OSAT-100 data radios are in service with aeromedical, power, oil and gas, logging and firefighting helicopter operators, mainly in Canada and the U.S.

“We specialize in bringing data from the aircraft to the ground,” she said. “That entails automatic reporting of a helicopter’s engine-start time, skids-off time, en route position reporting and skids-on time,” all of which may be viewed and stored by the computer operator on the ground.

Position reports and data messages are directed through a network control center–and ultimately through the Internet–to the dispatcher’s computer. The aircraft installation requires only a standard, off-the-shelf GPS antenna and airborne FM antenna and the OSAT-100 box, which weighs about four pounds.

The unit can be programmed by the user to report at any time interval required. Text messaging on the aircraft end is performed using a Palm PDA or laptop computer. Position reporting and messaging services are offered through a monthly contract similar to cellphone services from Technisonic partner SkyTrac Systems. Wallace said the retail price for the OSAT-100 and basic operating software is $8,495 and the service fee is $70 per month for five-minute reporting capability. She added that operators can buy the OSAT-100 for well below the unit’s list price.

The Internet and other types of data connection have greatly simplified the process of tracking aircraft on a computer screen. GPS receivers on board the aircraft, for example, provide a reliable and accurate means of determining position, which for the most part is immune to interference from terrain and obstacles. Radio modems and digital radio networks, consisting of inexpensive radio relays, meanwhile, allow pilots of equipped aircraft to report their precise current position to tracking facilities on the ground, which are plugged in to the radio relay network. Or, in the case of SkyTrac, satellites provide the communications link.

With the service, dispatchers can display the reported aircraft position on a computer-generated map, sent over the Internet, and can link the reporting aircraft to other digital information stored in computer databases. So a helicopter equipped with datalink could be flying offshore over the Gulf of Mexico and a dispatcher thousands of miles away could track the pilot’s every move. The combination of digital information from the database and the real-time information from the tracking system provides a powerful tool for a wide range of applications.

In addition to the computer monitoring stations on the ground, tracking displays and digital communications keyboards can be installed in aircraft to provide aircrews or operations personnel with a visual overview of just about any type of operation. Basic flight-following software is included with the OSAT-100, said Wallace, while additional enhanced software modules for specialized mapping and reporting of flight time are available.