Flight Tracking Technology Is Ahead of Regulators, Says Panasonic

 - August 22, 2016, 4:00 PM
Panasonic’s proprietary Airmap display shows aircraft locations based on flight tracking through its satellite communications systems. [Photo: Panasonic Avionics]

With the passing of nearly two-and-a-half years since the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, investigators still know more about where the missing Boeing 777 is not than where it actually is. While a few pieces of the airliner have washed up, despite millions spent in the search effort, there are scant clues as to the final resting place of the aircraft, which vanished in March 2014. Regulators have since been working, albeit slowly, to ensure such a situation is not repeated, by enacting a series of proposed solutions for tracking flights.

“I think the technology is ahead of where the regulations probably are,” said Jeffrey Rex, director of engineering and business development at Panasonic Avionics, speaking at a product demonstration in Newark, N.J., on August 18. “The opportunity is there to know where your aircraft are and track your aircraft without waiting for the regulations to do something about it in most cases.”

In November 2015, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) formally announced the adoption of commercial aircraft tracking Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs), establishing that it is the commercial air operator’s responsibility to track its aircraft throughout its area of operations, with a minimum tracking interval of 15 minutes per report. That information would be used to determine the aircraft’s last known position for search-and-rescue operations, as well as to establish when an airline needs to report missing aircraft position information. 

This past March, two years after MH370’s disappearance, ICAO adopted another amendment which includes SARPs relating to establishing the location of an aircraft in distress, by automatically initiating an increase in position information reporting to at least once per minute in abnormal flight situations. The measures pertain specifically to newly manufactured aircraft and are subject to acceptance and interpretation by each individual member state. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and other member governing bodies have yet to issue official endorsements on the amendments.

The SARPs became effective on July 11, meaning the deadline passed for more than 50 percent of member states to block the move. The measures will be applicable from Jan. 1, 2021, at which point states must have notified ICAO of any differences in their regulations and the ICAO standards.

In June, Panasonic’s avionics division announced it was offering flight tracking through its two existing global satellite communications (satcom) platforms, FlightLink and eXConnect, either of which would provide compliance with the ICAO advice in both normal and abnormal tracking situations. Together the two systems are installed on more than 1,500 commercial aircraft, any of which could be configured for flight tracking with just a simple software upgrade according to Rex.

“There are a lot of systems that can be turned on in aircraft where you are just turning on an application and adding a small software upgrade, instead of waiting for a whole new system to come out,” he noted. “That might take two or three years, and might comply with a standard that takes two or three years to develop, so stack that up and you probably get 95 percent of the end intent whatever that might be, just by putting out something you have today.”

Panasonic’s narrowband, Iridium-based FlightLink system provides global cockpit voice and data communication and can also be tailored to stream other vital information such as fuel status, or aircraft health monitoring.

The eXConnect broadband system operates on Panasonic’s own Ku-band satellite network and provides 99.6 percent global air route coverage with the only gaps coming at the poles. Intended primarily for in flight entertainment, the system provides Internet connectivity, wireless content streaming from an onboard server to portable devices, live global TV and global cellphone functionality.

Both systems work with Panasonic’s proprietary Airmap display and are custom configurable with the ability to set preferred reporting intervals, and initiate abnormal tracking mode automatically and remotely from the cockpit or a ground monitoring station.

Yet, while ICAO has published its advice, many airlines are delaying embracing flight tracking technology until they are mandated by their aviation authorities to do so. “Some of our customers have been really proactive in engaging in tracking and they’ve helped push us to make the product better actually,” said Rex. “One of the hurdles is the fact that the baseline systems to do this are not on every airplane, and it takes a while to modify aircraft,” he told AIN. “It’s not only the standards, but also the ability to go touch all the aircraft and do the modifications. There’s a huge backlog for some of the systems that have to be in place.”