The recent tragedy of the still-missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 has brought the tracking of aircraft sharply into focus, and at a conference last week in Montreal ICAO forged a consensus to develop aircraft tracking as matter of priority. While this is a welcome move, the ability to transmit more than just positional data is critical in allowing ground experts to not only determine the causes of losses, but also to give aircrew a better chance of averting a loss.
Continuous streaming of aircraft data has been possible for some time, but it comes at a high price and typically has high bandwidth demands. Flyht Aerospace Solutions (Booth 6242) has an elegant answer in the form of its Afirs (automated flight information reporting system), a virtually tamper-proof system that is already flying on around 350 aircraft, although not all have streaming capability.
Afirs uses the Iridium satellite network to transmit data, which has a number of benefits, such as worldwide coverage (some satcom systems do not cover the polar regions). It has also been proven to offer robust links, with aircraft able to maintain a connection even at extreme off-normal attitudes. However, Iridium is a low-bandwidth solution, so Flyht has developed a smart compression system that finally allows full aircraft data to be streamed through the Iridium network. Bandwidth requirements, and therefore cost of operation, are also reduced by designing the system so that it only streams data when automatically triggered to do so.
In normal circumstances Afirs provides a technical reporting service for operators. It periodically transmits technical reports of around 60 to 100 aircraft and system parameters, plus positional information, back to ground operations, It can also include a fuel-management function that allows operators to save on their fuel costs.
However, if an abnormality is detected, the system immediately and automatically generates and transmits a report to alert ground operations. Typically such events are abnormalities that are not critical safety of flight issues, but that will require closer monitoring and possible remedy after the aircraft has landed. The report allows ground operations to mobilize the necessary maintenance teams and parts to minimize downtime when the aircraft lands.
In an exceptional emergency situation, such as a depressurization, engine failure, fire, unusual attitude change or any other event that may threaten the safety of the aircraft, Afirs automatically begins live streaming of data. This detailed flow of information not only charts in real time the aircraft’s progress and status, but also provides an instant bank of information enabling ground experts to aid the aircrew in taking remedial action, by communicating through an Iridium voice channel. Operators can also choose to have emergency streams relayed to equipment OEMs and air traffic, rescue or other agencies.
In the event of an aircraft loss, the streamed Afirs data also provides accurate track and last-position data and acts as a backup to the primary “black box” flight data recorder. The ground system records data to allow an instant playback of similar information as recorded by the FDR, and also provides access to aircraft data from before the time that the emergency was first detected and notified.
Flyht quotes a price of around $50,000 for the Afirs equipment, and a similar amount for an installation, which takes two or three days to perform if not part of a wider maintenance activity. To offset the acquisition investment, the company claims that Afirs can pay for itself in a short time due to the potential fuel-savings it generates. While it is an everyday tool intended to streamline commercial and business aviation operations, its potential value to safety and accident investigation is incalculable.