Chris Kjelgaard explains why a sizeable number of specialist services have emerged to offer airlines very accurate flight-tracking capabilities for every aircraft in their fleets
The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, a Boeing 777-200ER registered 9M-MRO carrying 239 people on a scheduled flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, in the early hours of March 8, 2014 is one of the most mysterious events in aviation history.
Possibly only the disappearance of pioneer US aviator Amelia Earhart, who was flying a twin-piston-engine Lockheed Electra 10E over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937 in a round-the-world flight attempt when her aircraft vanished, has generated as much speculation. To this day, neither Earhart’s aircraft nor 9M-MRO has been found, though several small pieces of wreckage from the Malaysia Airlines 777 washed up on various coasts bordering the southwestern Indian Ocean in a period from 15 months to more than two years after MH370’s disappearance.
When MH370 disappeared, the commercial-aviation industry was stunned by the realisation that, in an age when the position of everyone on Earth who has an active mobile phone can be determined to within a few yards, an aircraft as enormous and sophisticated as a Boeing 777 could disappear so thoroughly that even today, three years later, nobody knows where it crashed.
In the wake of MH370’s disappearance, the governments of Malaysia and neighbouring Singapore quickly mandated their major carriers to put in place capabilities to let them track with a high degree of four-dimensional positional accuracy (in terms of latitude, longitude, altitude and time) every aircraft in their fleets at all times while airborne. Malaysia Airlines managed to do so by the summer of 2015 and all six airlines based in Singapore did so by July 2016.
Meanwhile, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the Montréal-headquartered United Nations body responsible for overseeing civil aviation safety standards worldwide, established an Aircraft Tracking Task Force to develop new standards and recommended practices (SARPs) for flight tracking, in cooperation with the aviation industry. ICAO intended each of its 191 member nations to require all the airlines based in each country to adopt those standards. This would make the in-house operations centres of every airline worldwide responsible for actively monitoring the positions of all their airborne aircraft, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, so that a disappearance like MH370 could never happen again.
ICAO’s Two Different Tracking Requirements
Subsequent analysis by ICAO and its industry partners led to ICAO proposing two different flight-tracking requirements. One was for normal operations and the second was for a much more rigorous abnormaland- distress-flight requirement for any aircraft to report its position autonomously and frequently if its flightpath deviated significantly from the flight plan and the aircraft entered a distress-flight condition. (ICAO defines ‘distress flight condition’ as “a condition in which, if the aircraft’s behaviour during the event is left uncorrected, it could result in an accident”.)
Through the work of its Normal Aircraft Tracking Implementation Initiative (NATII), in which IATA and other aviation-industry organisations have been strongly represented, ICAO established a SARP recommending member states to require by November 1, 2018 that all their airlines monitor the 4D positions of their aircraft every 15 minutes while aircraft are in normal flight. The SARP recommends its normal-operations tracking standard apply to all aircraft with a take-off weight of 27,000kg (59,525lb) or more and apply to all aircraft with a take-off weight of 45,500kg (100,310lb) or more when flying in oceanic airspace.
Separately, through its Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS) initiative, ICAO proposed an autonomous distress-tracking (ADT) requirement that any aircraft entering abnormal flight and then a distress-flight condition report its position to its airline autonomously at least once a minute, even in the event of the aircraft losing all electrical power. GADSS also recommends that in the event of an accident each aircraft’s flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder provide data detailing the aircraft’s previous 25 hours of operation rather than the two hours’ worth of data required now.
Autonomous Distress- Tracking Reporting
ICAO is calling for “performance-based” rather than “prescriptive” solutions to the ADT requirement, meaning that it doesn’t mind which technologies airlines and manufacturers use to provide ADT – if they can use technologies which are already on board the aircraft, it will help from the equipment-cost perspective. So ADT reporting could be triggered automatically if 4D positional data from an aircraft’s avionics fell outside certain parameters, or it could be triggered by the flight crew. The proposed one-minute ADT reporting-interval resulted from analysis of 42 accidents which showed that, more than 95% of the time, the crash location of an aircraft whose position was accurately known one minute before the accident was within six nautical miles (11km) of that position.
The GADSS SARPs are intended to apply to new aircraft (both new aircraft types and new examples of existing types) completed from January 1, 2021 and having take-off weights greater than 27,000kg (59,525lb). ICAO further recommends that the distress-condition SARPs apply to new aircraft with take-off weights greater than 5,700kg (12,566lb), from the same date. ICAO notes there is also an incentive for operators to retrofit existing aircraft built before January 1, 2021 with ADT systems, because ICAO will allow an ADT system to replace one of the two emergency locator transmitters each airliner is required to carry now.
ICAO and its industry partners in the NATII and GADSS initiatives note that many mainline commercial aircraft today – and all new long-haul aircraft – already have avionics fitted which could allow them to meet the normal-tracking mandate ICAO plans for airline operations centres. Aircraft equipped with FANS/ADS-C (automatic dependent surveillance-contract) communication equipment and ADS-B Out (automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast) transponders – also known as 1090ES transponders, because they transmit at 1090MHz and their ‘Extended Squitter’ signals convey much more data than Mode A, Mode C and Mode S transponders – can be configured to provide the requisite positional signals. However, these avionics units broadcast to air navigation service providers (ANSPs), not airline operations centres – so some modifications might be required.
Existing Avionics No Good for GADSS
However, as transportation fleet-tracking company Blue Sky Network points out in a June 2016 white paper on ICAO’s GADSS concept, three aspects of ICAO’s ADT distress-tracking requirements would prevent even today’s advanced avionics from meeting those requirements. One is that the ADT tracking system must be tamper-proof. Second is that for the duration of the flight its power source has to be independent from the aircraft’s general electrical-power systems.
Third is that, in the event of the ADT system being activated by a false sensor input, or if the aircraft returns to normal operation after displaying abnormal operating parameters which activate its ADT system, then the system needs to be reset to stop transmitting autonomously and automatically. However, by design its operation cannot be stopped from within the aircraft, so the ADT system must be reconfigured and reset remotely. This will require two-way communication between the ADT system and the airline operations centre.
Space-Based ADS-B and Tracking
Various industry observers have argued that, when fully operational from mid- 2018, the new space-based ADS-B air traffic management surveillance system being put in place by Aireon – owned by telecoms satellite operator Iridium and four ANSPs – could obviate the need for ICAO’s normal and distress-tracking requirements completely.
They say that because Aireon’s system – which will rely on ADS-B transceivers affixed to the undersides of 75 low-earth orbit Iridium NEXT satellites, some of which are already in orbit – will provide ANSPs that subscribe to Aireon’s ADS-B data feeds once a second with position reports from every suitably equipped aircraft airborne anywhere in the world. ICAO’s once-a-minute distress-tracking requirement will provide aircraft positions 60 times less frequently.
However, several important caveats should be noted – and Blue Sky Network, which makes equipment that it says provides the one-minute ADT distress reporting, independent power source and two-way-communication reset capability needed to fulfil ICAO’s distress-tracking requirement fully, is quick to note them.
One obvious caveat is that Aireon’s space-based ADS-B data feed will go to ANSPs to meet their air traffic management (ATM) surveillance requirements, not to airline operations centres – though Aireon may be willing to provide customised data feeds of the positions of every aircraft in an airline’s fleet to that airline, should the airline subscribe to a suitably tailored surveillance feed.
A second caveat is that even though space-based ADS-B will rely on very data-rich position reports broadcast from 1090ES ADS-B Out aircraft transponders, those position reports do not include among the categories of data that they broadcast any information on aircraft/engine system anomalies, or other operational anomalies. Nor do space-based ADS-B Out transponders offer two-way communication. In order to be able to provide that, each aircraft would also have to be equipped with an ADS-B In receiver – but most airlines regard ADS-B In units as overly expensive and not economically worthwhile.
Another caveat is that an aircraft’s ADS-B Out 1090ES transponder needs to have a supply of power in order to transmit its detailed position reports every half-second (alternating the transmissions via upper and lower antennas on the aircraft’s fuselage). Since an aircraft’s 1090ES transponder is powered by the aircraft’s general electrical-power supply, provided by its engines and batteries, if the aircraft loses all electrical power to its avionics, then its 1090ES transponder will stop providing position reports.
Blue Sky Network also argues that in order to provide the truly global coverage which would allow Aireon’s space-based ADS-B system to obviate the need for ICAO’s two tracking initiatives, every ANSP in the world would need to become an Aireon customer. That said, Aireon has already signed up as firm customers many of the world’s major ANSPs – including almost every ANSP which manages a large volume of oceanic airspace – and it has technology-demonstration agreements in place with many others, including almost all other major ANSPs which are not firm Aireon customers to date. There is a real chance that Aireon will indeed sign up every ANSP necessary for space-based ADS-B to provide fully global, real-time ATM surveillance.
Professional Flight-Tracking Services
Given this regulatory and technological background, it isn’t surprising that a growing number of companies are rushing to meet airlines’ needs for aircraft-tracking systems that will comply with both ICAO’s NATII 15-minute and GADSS one-minute tracking and aircraftreporting requirements. In most, if not all, cases, these companies combine and integrate data feeds from a variety of sources to provide their worldwide tracking capabilities.
The data sources professional flighttracking services use include ADS-B Out position reports captured by independently owned networks of ground-based ADS-B receivers; surveillance data feeds from ANSPs such as the FAA and regionwide organisations such as Eurocontrol; multilateration data, whereby several ground stations capture a signal from an aircraft’s Mode S transponder and calculate the aircraft’s position accurately from the time differences at which the signal arrives at different ground stations; satcom-derived data; and customer data from the text messages transmitted from aircraft flight decks to airline ops control centres using the Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS).
Several flight-tracking service providers have teamed up with, or even are, companies which specialise in providing detailed weather forecasting for aviation and other industries. In addition to combining data feeds such as those listed above, these flight-tracking services also provide detailed forecasting and reporting – in easy-tounderstand graphical formats – of weather information of key significance to aircraft operators, so they can see the weather along the routes their aircraft are flying.
Such reporting can include detailed forecasting of clear air turbulence ahead of the aircraft; tropical storms; lightning; icing conditions; en route winds aloft; fog and dew points; dense precipitation; temperatures; SIGMETS and AIRMETs; volcanic ash-spread modelling; weather at airports en route; and many other weather events. This information can allow an airline’s ops centre to optimise an aircraft’s route for wind and weather conditions while the aircraft is airborne.
Various systems offer automated alerting capabilities for parameters that aircraft operators can configure for themselves (such as the presence of certain weather conditions en route), allowing them to manage flighttracking “by exception”.
The names FlightAware and Flightradar24.com are familiar to many air passengers, as companies which provide excellent flight-tracking services to the general public. Each also has thousands of corporate customers for its basic products. However, both companies – particularly FlightAware – are active in providing and/or developing professional flight-tracking services for airlines and other aircraft operators.
Today, at least ten companies now offer professional flight-tracking services and the market landscape is becoming muddied because several companies are finding good reasons to partner with others. Recent events (see later) suggest the professional flight-tracking services industry might be starting to consolidate – at least in terms of companies cooperating rather than competing.
However, some in-flight telecoms companies – such as Flyht, which provides real-time streaming of operational data from aircraft with its Automated Flight Information Reporting System – are capable of providing flight-tracking services which meet not only ICAO’s normal-operations tracking mandate, but also its one-minute distress tracking mandate. (Flyht says its system offers minimum distress-tracking resolution of 20 seconds.)
Other companies with new technologies aimed at providing high-bit-rate broadband communications services to and from commercial and business aircraft – such as US-based start-ups Airborne Wireless Network, Pivotal Commware and SmartSky Networks – could develop capabilities to provide flight-tracking services if they wished. This is because their signalstransmission technologies require them to know where the 4D positions of all the aircraft they serve are accurate to time intervals as brief as one microsecond (in Pivotal Commware’s case).
Sabre Airline Solutions
Sabre has provided its Sabre AirCentre Flight Explorer aircraft-tracking, IT and communications service to the world’s airlines since 1997, so it was one of the earliest providers of professional flighttracking services. Its FE Professional system, which gives users aircraft, weather and airport situational awareness through a single graphical Aircraft Situation Display, has an installed base of over 5,000 systems.
In addition to offering airlines combined-data flight-tracking feeds (such as its Firehose service) on its own behalf, FlightAware has partnered with at least two other professional flight-tracking services to offer combined, enhanced products. More might be forthcoming: CEO Daniel Baker says FlightAware’s business model makes it happy to provide data feeds and graphicalinterface capabilities to any customer which wants to buy them for flight-tracking purposes.
Through its AIRCOM services for airlines, SITAONAIR – the in-flight connectivity unit of aeronautical-telecommunications company SITA – became an early player offering a sophisticated professional flighttracking service (FlightTracker). SITAONAIR partners with French weather-data company Schneider Electric to provide automated alerting capabilities for key weather events, including Schneider Electric’s proprietary eddy dissipation rate turbulence forecasting. When required to trial flight-tracking capabilities by their respective governments after the disappearance of flight MH370, Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines became the first two airlines to use FlightTracker. Early on SITAONAIR decided to bring in FlightAware as a partner and today FlightTracker has about 45 airline customers.
Aireon announced on September 26, 2016 that, in addition to providing space-based ADS-B data feeds to ANSPs for ATM surveillance purposes, it was partnering with FlightAware to launch a new flighttracking service called GlobalBeacon, which from 2018 would combine FlightAware’s existing flight-tracking service with a space-based ADS-B feed. GlobalBeacon would allow airlines to meet and exceed ICAO’s GADSS requirements and Qatar Airways was announced as the launch customer. Under the agreement, Qatar Airways would start receiving FlightAware’s Firehose tracking service immediately. (However, see Inmarsat below.)
Subsequently, on November 29, 2016, Aireon and FlightAware announced they had also agreed to partner with SITAONAIR to provide a combined flight-tracking data feed through SITAONAIR’s FlightTracker service. On April 18, 2017, Malaysia Airlines – the launch customer for the original FlightTracker service in 2015 – was announced as the launch customer for the newly enhanced SITAONAIR-FlightAware- Aireon service.
Additionally, Aireon had previously announced that once its space-based ADS-B service was fully operational it would offer –to pre-registered, relevant users such as ANSPs, airlines and searchand- rescue organisations – a free tracking service offering real-time tracking data globally for use in aviation emergencies. The service, called Aireon Aircraft Locating and Emergency Response Tracking (ALERT), will be provided through the Irish Aviation Authority (an Aireon shareholder) at its North Atlantic Communications Centre in Ballygireen in Ireland.
Telecommunications satellite operator Inmarsat has long provided free historical aircraft-tracking data – including identifying the likely route flight MH370 took from the routine hourly ‘pings’ one of its geostationary-orbit satellites performed automatically with the aircraft’s satcom system in order to ensure they were still connected.
In 2015, Inmarsat conducted – with Qantas, Virgin Australia and the ANSPs Airservices Australia and Airways New Zealand – trials in Pacific Ocean airspace of an ADS-C satcom-based flight-tracking service. This successful trial showed the service could support a minimum tracking reporting rate of 14 minutes, meeting ICAO’s 15-minute NATII standard and persuading the two ANSPs to reduce their Pacific Ocean airspace procedural separation standard to 14 minutes from 30 to 40 minutes.
On April 25, 2017, Inmarsat announced that Qatar Airways had activated a new space-based flight-tracking system supplied by Inmarsat to track all of the carrier’s flights throughout the world, after trialling the system for a year. How this announcement squares with Qatar Airways’ existing agreement to use the Aireon- FlightAware GlobalBeacon service remains to be seen.
Rockwell Collins offers airlines a combineddata flight-tracking service called MultiLink, newly enhanced by a new graphical flight data display from ARINC, its aeronautical telecommunications-network subsidiary. Royal Jordanian Airlines is the launch customer for the MultiLink ARINC flight data display.
Panasonic Avionics, a leading manufacturer of in-flight entertainment and communications systems, offers airlines a combined-data flight-tracking service, using the company’s Airmap graphical displays.
The Weather Company
IBM subsidiary The Weather Company offers airlines and business aircraft operators a combined-data flight-tracking and traffic flow-management service called WSI Fusion, which also integrates graphical weather-forecasting capabilities for many weather categories. WSI Fusion has many customers among aircraft operators, including UPS Airlines.
Blue Sky Network
Keen to point out that, no matter how sophisticated they are, today’s avionics won’t necessarily meet ICAO’s distresstracking requirements, Blue Sky Network offers lightweight avionics satcom transceivers (which rely on Iridium’s LEO communications-satellite constellations) called the HawkEye 7200A and 7200X. It claims these units meet all the twoway communication, position-reporting, independent-power and other features that the GADSS initiative requires or recommends for distress flight-tracking.
Although Flightradar24.com doesn’t yet offer a professional flight-tracking service, it has recently partnered with Airbus Defence & Space and microsatellite manufacturer GomSpace in experiments to locate ADS-B transceivers on buoys floating in mid-ocean and on orbiting microsatellites, with the aim of providing a fully global ADS-B-based flight-tracking service.