Avionics and communications service providers say existing systems will readily support the 15-minute tracking standard the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) called for after Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared. However, future requirements will require further development and cost.
MH370, a Boeing 777-200 with 239 people on board, disappeared from radar on March 8, 2014, while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. An onboard Inmarsat satellite communications terminal continued to operate after the aircraft left radar coverage, indicating through a “handshake” response to a ground station interrogation that its last known position was over the southern Indian Ocean. Despite a multinational search effort, the aircraft still had not been found one year later.
At the ICAO High Level Safety Conference in February, member states recommended the adoption of a tracking standard for aircraft that requires them to report their positions at 15-minute intervals. The recommended tracking standard is “performance-based and not prescriptive,” ICAO said, meaning that airlines would be able to comply with it using existing and planned technologies and procedures.
Service and equipment providers said the standard can be met with existing technology, which includes the aircraft communications, addressing and reporting system (Acars), a datalink most airline operations centers already use to communicate with their aircraft; automatic dependent surveillance-contract (ADS-C), a primarily satellite-based means by which an aircraft periodically reports its GPS-derived position to ground stations; automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), in which an aircraft automatically broadcasts its position to controllers at rapid intervals; and radar data.
“Fifteen-minute tracking is a pretty simple thing to go do; I think the expense is very low,” said Chris Benich, vice president of government relations with avionics manufacturer Honeywell (Chalet 106). “Most airplanes today that are flying in non-radar airspace are equipped with an Acars system, likely supported by a satcom-type communications system, which is perfectly capable of reporting position information on a 15-minute interval.”
Honeywell was among vendors that briefed regulators, air navigation services providers (ANSPs), aircraft manufacturers and airlines on existing capabilities in advance of ICAO’s high-level safety conference, Benich said. “We have been briefing the International Air Transport Association, ICAO and our customers on what’s available today to address that initial capability of a 15-minute update,” he said. “That’s Acars, which is already on the airplane, [and] ADS-C, which basically works through Acars as an additional functionality.”
In March, Rockwell Collins (Chalet 21, Hall 2b D108) announced a new flight-tracking service that incorporates those systems and its own high-frequency datalink enhancement of its Acars system. The “Arinc MultiLink” service uses a proprietary algorithm to merge and standardize data from the various inputs, yielding “higher fidelity” position reporting, the company said.
“Multiple data feeds…can allow us to provide positional data more frequently than any one could by itself,” said Tim Ryan, Rockwell Collins director of Globalink programs and services management. “If you focus on just one [feed] you may not have enough coverage to satisfy even the 15-minute recommendation by ICAO. With the aggregate of them all together, you certainly do.”
Airline communications provider SITA OnAir announced in April that Malaysia Airlines will be the first carrier to begin flight tracking this summer using its Aircom FlightTracker, which draws position information from existing equipment and “repurposes” ATC data.
Using multiple data sources, including the ADS-C application of the Future Air Navigation System airlines use for oceanic ATC communications, the system “guarantees” tracking intervals of at least every 15 minutes for every flight, and airlines can configure it for intervals of less than 15 minutes. SITA describes the tracker system as “simply an extra software layer” on top of its ground-based Aircom server Acars message handling system.
In January, Inmarsat and ANSP Airservices Australia, in conjunction with airlines Qantas and Virgin Australia, began testing a system using ADS-C to regularly track aircraft over Australia’s oceanic regions. The trial aligned with ICAO’s 15-minute tracking requirement, the parties said.
Over the longer term, satellite surveillance system developer Aireon has pledged to provide a free emergency tracking service using ADS-B receivers contained as hosted payloads on new Iridium Next satellites. The service will provide search-and-rescue organizations with the location and last flight track of any 1090-MHz ADS-B transponder-equipped aircraft flying in airspace without other surveillance. Iridium plans to place its second-generation satellite constellation in orbit by 2017.
Avionics suppliers offer their own onboard position reporting systems. Honeywell’s Aspire 200 satcom system, a new generation satcom radio, supports a position reporting function of Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband service. Its Sky Connect Tracker III is a satcom system with an integrated GPS unit that transmits over the Iridium satellite network. While the product is focused on tracking offshore oil and emergency medical services helicopters and small, fixed-wing turboprops, Honeywell and operators have supplemental type certificates for larger aircraft, including widebody airliners.
Canadian supplier Flyht Aerospace Solutions was also among vendors that informed ICAO’s deliberations leading to the tracking recommendations. It said the 15-minute standard and other requirements “can easily be met” by its existing Iridium-based Automated Flight Information Reporting System (Afirs), which is designed for flight-following applications. Afirs continues transmitting as long as an aircraft has electrical power, and its associated antenna remains intact. Installing Afirs would cost “less than $100,000,” depending on the aircrafttype, the company said.
“We are pleased that AFIRS fits the recommendations revealed at the ICAO meetings,” stated Bill Tempany, Flyht Aerospace Solutions CEO. “AFIRS is the only safety services certified product able to immediately meet published recommendations.”
Distress System Envisioned
The 15-minute tracking requirement, however, is considered a near-term step toward a more comprehensive Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS), a three-tiered approach to tracking covering normal, abnormal and distress conditions. A working group ICAO established after the disappearance of MH370 developed the GADSS concept of operations, which envisions 15-minute tracking for normal flight operations by 2016 and one-minute tracking for abnormal and distress conditions by 2021.
The evolving ICAO requirements will be more demanding, requiring an aircraft to not just report its position on a more frequent basis, but also produce more sets of information with a higher level of integration with other onboard systems. That is expected to add cost to the eventual tracking solution. In addition, vexing questions such as whether tracking systems should be tamper-proof, preventing flight crews from deactivating them, still have to be resolved.
“I fully expect that we will offer whatever our customers need to align with ICAO requirements or regional requirements for tracking and we will evolve our systems accordingly,” said Honeywell’s Benich.