Aireon's Free Aircraft Emergency Location Service Goes Live

 - July 9, 2019, 1:22 PM
Aireon’s space-based ADS-B air traffic management surveillance service went into effect in April in the Gander and Shanwick FIRs, which together control more than 90 percent of all North Atlantic transatlantic traffic.

Aireon has announced that its Alert free service for locating aircraft in potential emergency situations anywhere on Earth is now available so that registered users can query the last-known position and flight track of any ADS-B Out-equipped aircraft potentially in distress.

The Aireon Alert service is operated by the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA), one of Aireon’s founding shareholders. Alert—aircraft location and emergency response tracking —is handled by the IAA’s North Atlantic Communications Centre in Ballygireen in rural County Clare. The center handles ATC radio and HF aircraft communications for more than 90 percent of all transatlantic traffic.

At a press conference held at the Ballygireen center Tuesday, IAA CEO Peter Kearney said Alert is “a totally revolutionary service…not offered by anyone, anywhere else.” Like the first transatlantic flight—performed by John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown in a modified Vickers Vimy bomber, which flew nearly 1,900 miles nonstop from St. John’s in Newfoundland to Clifden in County Galway 100 years ago last month—“I believe that in years to come the Aireon service and Aireon Alert will be seen as another key milestone in aviation.”

Aireon generates revenue by providing air navigation service providers (ANSPs) with air traffic management (ATM) surveillance-grade data feeds of aircraft position information obtained twice a second from ADS-B Out-equipped aircraft by Aireon’s space-based ADS-B transceivers. Its feeds went into operation on April 2 with Nav Canada and UK ANSP NATS for their respective Gander and Shanwick FIRs, thus making live ATM surveillance of all North Atlantic airspace possible for the first time. Now, Alert is the “first free, real-time, global aircraft location service,” noted Sean Patrick, the IAA’s general manager oceanic services.

Alert will provide position information for any aircraft that has been transmitting ADS-B signals by means of a 1090 MHz ADS-B Out system but which is believed to have entered an “alerting phase.” A user would invoke an alert “where concern exists in relation to the context of the flight” because the behavior of the aircraft indicates it may be in distress or communication and/or contact with it has been lost, said Patrick.

The service is available to any registered user who calls the Aireon Alert phone number and provides the operator with the aircraft’s unique ICAO 24-bit hex address or its ICAO flight identifier. Upon receiving that information, the Alert operator will immediately provide the user—who must belong to a suitable aviation stakeholder—with the aircraft’s last-known four-dimensional position in latitude, longitude, altitude, and time. Two minutes later, the operator will send the user an e-mail with Google Earth map files and data files showing the aircraft’s four-dimensional track for the 15 minutes prior to its last reported position.

Stakeholders allowed to register for the free Alert service need not be customers of either the IAA or Aireon. In fact, said Don Thoma, Aireon’s CEO, Aireon encourages non-customers to register for Alert, because they are most likely to need it most. Registered users must have suitable roles in aviation stakeholders such as airlines or other aircraft fleet operators, ANSPs, regulators, other government agencies, and search and rescue (SAR) organizations.

While Patrick conceded Aireon Alert is mainly directed at the commercial-aviation sector, he said, “the business aviation community is more than welcome to use the service” by having suitable individuals complete the registration process. “What we don’t want is [to promote] a GA-type service,” because of the huge number of registrants and queries that would generate, he said. “But if there is an issue with a GA-type aircraft [a light aircraft], it can be escalated through normal [emergency-reporting] channels,” which already may be Aireon Alert registrants. The service can then promptly provide last-known location and track information for the aircraft. The aircraft must be 1090 MHz ADS-B Out equipped, however; Aireon's space-based ADS-B transceivers don't receive the 978 MHz signal used in many U.S. aircraft ADS-B Out systems. 

Pre-registration for Alert began in August 2018 and today the service has 193 registered users, representing 155 organizations in 60 countries. Of the users, 93 work for airlines, 50 for ANSPs, 21 for SAR organizations, 16 for regulators, and 13 for other organizations. “In a year or two, we hope we can have a 100 or 200 percent increase in the number of registrations,” said Patrick.