Data Link Will Help Locate Downed Aircraft Faster

 - November 14, 2011, 5:49 AM

Astrium Star Airborne Data Service is at the Dubai Air Show promoting a new air-to-ground link that is designed to be faster and more relevant to airline safety economics, while also playing an important role in accident recovery and investigation.

The UK-based company, which is a partnership between EADS subsidiary Astrium and Star Navigation of Toronto, Canada, hopes this equipment will become mandatory for use in events such as the Air France 447 crash, when it took almost two years to find the wreckage of an Airbus A330. Indeed, the system can stream position data via satellite, said Paul Fisher, who is responsible for the firm’s design authority.

Triggered by an unusual aircraft attitude, for example, the stream of information keeps transmitting regardless of the attitude. The antenna has been designed to  stay “in sight” of Iridium satellites even when the aircraft rolls. In case it becomes inverted, a second antenna, under the aircraft’s belly, takes over for the upper antenna.

Besides this triggered streaming feature, two other transmission protocols are active continuously. They are geared toward optimizing operating economics. Performance information is transmitted every five minutes, and each minute, a “data burst” sends the aircraft’s position. All this is supposed to help operations specialists on the ground  optimize fuel use and monitor aircraft system trends. In addition, some specified maintenance events in flight can trigger additional “bursts.”

“Our point is not to send a lot of information but rather to send the information the customer wants,” Fisher stressed. Some data sorting and analysis is done on board, prior to compressing and sending. In that regard, the new product is said to be better than the existing, widely used ACARS system, Fisher said.

Asked about cost, he said there are an installation charge and a license fee on top of a charge for data transmission, but he would not give further details.

The company is now testing its system on two aircraft: an Airbus A310, which is in regular service with an airline, and a Sorrell Hyperbipe, a light aerobatic biplane.

The EADS subsidiary also has been in touch with the French air accident investigation office (BEA). “Our system meets the BEA’s requirement for six-nautical-mile location precision anytime [even before an event triggers continuous transmission],” Fisher said.

Astrium Star has also been in contact with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which may consider making such systems mandatory. They would greatly help in locating the wreckage of downed aircraft. As the AF447 probe proved so cruelly, flight data and cockpit voice recorders are useless if they cannot be located.