Farnborough Air Show

Flight Tracking Industry Set To Evolve Rapidly

 - July 13, 2018, 6:00 AM
Daniel Baker, FlightAware CEO, believes big data and artificial intelligence are the future of flight tracking.

The flight-tracking industry is set not only to allow operators to meet ICAO’s deadlines for normal and distress tracking (the former is November 8 this year), but also to evolve rapidly to provide powerful new capabilities. The industry's commercial prospects have been boosted by requirements mandated for aircraft operators by ICAO’s Global Aeronautical Distress & Safety System (GADSS) following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in March 2014. 

A number of factors are combining to allow providers of flight-tracking services to offer new predictive flight-tracking capabilities that will give aircraft operators a range of commercially important benefits, according to Daniel Baker, CEO of FlightAware, a provider of flight-tracking data. Those benefits range from alerting operators automatically when aircraft behave unexpectedly in flight to improving flight efficiency and boosting operators’ resource-scheduling, gate-allocation, and flight-connection capabilities Additional new benefits will emerge over the next decade as operators’ flight- and resource-planning and flight-tracking automation platforms become increasingly integrated, Baker told AIN.

“We’re at a really interesting time in computer technology and computer science,” said Baker. “Until one or two years ago, the vast majority of the decision-making in HyperFeed [FlightAware’s flight-tracking data-analysis engine] was algorithmic,” he added. At that point, HyperFeed used approximately 1,000 separate software algorithms to process raw flight-plan and radar data from air traffic control systems in 55 countries. It also tapped FlightAware’s network of terrestrial ADS-B ground stations in 175 countries and more recently, space-based global ADS-B data feeds provided by Aireon. All these resources enabled the company to track aircraft in flight all over the world. However, virtually all of the processed data reflected the history of each flight: it provided little in the way of predictive capability.

“But now the state of technology has changed; we’re moving into machine learning, using artificial intelligence to leverage big data to predict the future world,” said Baker. “We’re fortunate that we’re at this point where a lot more data is out there and a lot more technology is available to process and analyze it. So two things are converging.”

These two trends are dramatically changing FlightAware’s ability to predict the future behavior of a flight, particularly its ability to predict the elapsed time that key phases of the flight will require. These include the time it will take for an aircraft to negotiate the last 150 to 200 nm of a flight through congested terminal-area airspace. Further, because FlightAware can also now predict the pathway a given flight will take on an airport’s taxiways, it can predict the taxiing and ground holding time after landing, or—after it departs the gate—before takeoff.

“Five years ago, we could only predict to within five to 10 minutes the time it would take a given flight to travel through the terminal airspace surrounding a busy airport because variables such as ATC instructions and runway availability couldn’t be predicted accurately,” said Baker. “If, say, an airline had three flights due to arrive at the airport within a 15-minute period, it couldn’t make an informed decision to allocate specific gates for each flight, because it couldn’t know exactly when each would arrive.”

Now, however, he said FlightAware “can predict touchdown time to within 30 seconds” for an aircraft 200 nm from its destination and about to enter terminal airspace. The company is already offering the capability for about 100 airport terminal areas as an extra option through its Firehose programming API for customers. The software can process high-volume streams of aircraft positional data entering their automation systems. Through Firehose, FlightAware is also offering the optional ability for customers to track their aircraft while they are moving on the airfield surface.

Arming an airline with this knowledge—and the knowledge of how long the aircraft will take to taxi to the gate once it has landed—might not let the flight arrive any more quickly, but it will help the airline decide which gate to allocate and efficiently schedule vehicle drivers, aircraft-servicing crews, and ground agents meeting the flight, as well as flight crews positioning to operate the aircraft’s next mission. “It’s not always about changing the flightpath; it’s about having the information and what you can do about it,” said Baker.

Space-based ADS-B

FlightAware is partnering with Aireon to offer customers flight-tracking data from Aireon’s space-based ADS-B data feeds at least once a minute for any aircraft anywhere in the world, via a number of products, one of which is Firehose. Another is GlobalBeacon, the two companies’ joint turnkey web offering for smaller carriers—and also for bigger carriers that don’t have time to integrate a space-based ADS-B data feed into their existing automation platforms before the ICAO GADSS 15-minute normal tracking mandate goes into effect on November 8.

Airlines are now beta-testing GlobalBeacon, and it will enter commercial service by November, according to Baker. The one-minute updating frequency GlobalBeacon provides means that as of November the service will offer operators the tracking-message frequency that the GADSS one-minute autonomous distress tracking mandate will require them to have as of Jan. 1, 2021. However, by November, GlobalBeacon won’t necessarily meet all of the 2021 mandate’s autonomous-alerting requirements.

FlightAware has also long partnered with SITA on joint data products and, together with Aireon, FlightAware now is offering Aireon’s space-based ADS-B feed through SITA’s Flight Tracker service (for an extra fee over and above the basic Flight Tracker product). Many airlines use it as part of an integrated suite of operations-management capabilities built into SITA’s automation platform.

Baker predicts that, as operators increasingly choose to integrate data from flight-tracking specialists such as FlightAware into the suites of operations-management data tools provided by automation-platform providers such as Rockwell Collins and IBM (FlightAware also provides data for both of these companies’ flight-tracking products), flight-tracking services not only will become more available, but they will also offer operators powerful new decision-making capabilities. They will be able to do so when used in concert with other data tools managing functions such as crew rest, fueling, flight-planning, MRO planning, and passenger and cargo information.

“The way it’s going to work is that the platforms are going to bring FlightAware and its counterparts in the fueling and crew spaces [as well as others] all together,” said Baker. “In the next 10 years, there will be integrated decision-making tools across everything the airline does. Airlines are going to make decisions about the platform and integration, which will be a whole rising tide for the platform.”