As search teams scour the seas around Southeast Asia for signs of a Boeing 777 airliner that’s been missing more than a week, the current technology for tracking of flights is under intense scrutiny.
In this era of broadband digital data, can’t modern airliners everywhere be tracked continuously in real time?
If something goes wrong, why can’t data be sent to the ground as it happens, quickly providing information around an airliner disaster?
The good news is that plans for the world’s airliners include new satellite flight-tracking technology that by 2020 should cover much of the planet, including polar and mid-ocean areas that are beyond the reach of radar.
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In the meantime, technology already available could play a similar role in case of an accident, though its primary purpose is to make airline operations more efficient.
This currently available technology costs no more than $100,000 to install — a paltry sum on jets that airlines buy for anywhere between $40 million and $200 million.
Pinpointing the cause of any jet crash is difficult, and sometimes crashes remain mysterious.
In June 2009, Air France flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris disappeared in bad weather mid-Atlantic. It took almost two years, and an estimated $160 million, to find and retrieve the Airbus A330’s so-called “black box” — 2.4 miles down on the ocean floor — containing the performance data that was crucial to finding out what brought down the jet.
Prompted by the French investigating authority, an international study team concluded in 2011 that “it is technically feasible to significantly reduce the search area for wreckage by triggering transmission of appropriate data” via satellite to the ground.
Most airlines haven’t yet done anything about this, though the technology exists.
Richard Hayden, a director and former president of FLYHT Aerospace Solutions, says his small, startup avionics company based in Calgary, Canada, has a solution that works.
“There are today no technology barriers to doing this,” Hayden said. “None. Zero.”
FLYHT sells a system capable of streaming to the ground most of the important airplane performance data that is recorded in a standard commercial airliner flight-data recorder, the “black box.”
If any critical airplane system goes seriously wrong in the air, that would trigger FLYHT’s system to continuously stream the most critical data, including precise second-by-second location information, via satellite to the ground.
Should a plane with FLYHT’s technology crash due to some airplane malfunction, “we’d know within the length of an airplane” the spot where it hit the Earth, said Hayden.
If all electrical power were lost, or if the box were shut off by human intervention, “we’d know the precise location when the power was shut off.”
Every modern jet has a radar transponder in its nose
that picks up an interrogating message from any radar station and sends back a code identifying the specific airplane and its position.
But a jet flying more than 200 miles from a coastline is out of radar range.
The pilots flying such a jet are dependent on their communications systems to be visible to the world.
They have a digital messaging system called Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) that can transmit short messages via high-frequency radio or satellite. That’s the system that was periodically pinging satellites from the missing 777 after it dropped off radar.
Pilots use this system to communicate back to the airline’s operating center, relaying information or getting weather updates. All airlines must have such a center that keeps in touch at all times with every airplane they have in the sky.
“We use ACARS every single day,” said Capt. Sean Cassidy, who flies with Alaska Airlines and is national safety coordinator for the pilot union Air Line Pilots Association. “It’s almost like an email system going back and forth with the company.”
The pilots are also required to report to the nearest air traffic control authorities as they reach certain way points in the sky. This is generally done by voice communication, via satellite phone or high-frequency radio.
But if pilots don’t report their position for whatever reason — whether because the communication systems fail or someone on board cuts the cord — then their location isn’t known.
Until communications are restored, air traffic controllers can only estimate, using the latest filed position report and the projected speed and heading, where the plane may be.
On the horizon
Such blind spots in the world’s skies will disappear with new technology that will start rolling out within the next four years.
The first piece of that system — which carries the cumbersome label of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B — is a new form of transponder that broadcasts to ground stations more precise information than does radar.
ADS-B data will pinpoint a jet’s location using GPS technology and will also include the plane’s trajectory, which radar data does not.
And while long-range radar towers sweep around up to about once every 16 seconds to get a fix on an aircraft’s position, ADS-B will fix its location every second.
All the planes that roll off the Boeing and Airbus assembly lines now come with ADS-B preinstalled.
The technology will be mandatory for airliners flying in the U.S. by 2020, and two years earlier in Europe.
In Australia and in Canada’s North Atlantic region, the ground stations needed to capture those signals are already operating. Installation of more than 600 ADS-B ground stations is almost complete in the U.S.
But the really new step starts next year.
In a project called Aireon and led by Nav Canada, the privatized air traffic control system in Canada, ADS-B receivers will go into space on the next generation of Iridium low-earth-orbit satellites.
The current constellation will be replaced by 66 upgraded satellites, to be launched between 2015 and the end of 2017.
This means ADS-B coverage won’t be tied to ground stations and will be available via satellite anywhere on the planet.
That will provide “precision of tracking of the aircraft that is revolutionary for air traffic control,” said Hank Krakowski, former chief operating officer at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and now a principal with Nexa Capital Partners, which is helping raise private money for air-traffic modernization, including the Aireon project.
Rudy Kellar, executive vice president with Nav Canada, which owns 51 percent of Aireon, said that once ADS-B receivers are spinning around the globe, pilots over the mid-Atlantic will no longer be dependent on communications to report their position.
Every second, their position will be beamed down automatically to the screens of the relevant air traffic controllers.
If an air crash were to happen, he said, the controllers would know the position of the crash site to the accuracy of the Global Positioning System (GPS) system, which is about 26 feet.
He said deployment of the new satellites is on schedule, and the system should be ready to use over Canada and the North Atlantic in 2018.
Bonus in emergencies
In 2010, when an engine blew out after takeoff from Singapore on a Qantas A380 superjumbo carrying more than 450 people, the jet had to circle the airport dumping fuel as smoke poured from under the wing.
For a tense 90 minutes, top executives and engineers at Qantas were monitoring the plane’s systems from the airline’s operations center in Australia and providing advice and feedback to the pilots, who were able to successfully land the plane.
In Derby, England, Rolls-Royce engineers were likewise monitoring from afar the performance of the jet’s remaining three engines.
That day, both Qantas and Rolls were relying on the relatively primitive ACARS system to feed them the technical data.
Likewise, Boeing offers its airline customers a service called Airplane Health Management, which again relies on ACARS to download information about the state of all the airplane’s critical systems.
The real purpose of these services is not for use in emergencies but to improve an airline’s operational performance and cost efficiency.
An airline can increase its on-time reliability and save money if technical faults are spotted early and addressed.
Like the Boeing and Rolls-Royce services, the boxes designed by FLYHT that record airplane-performance data and stream it to the ground where necessary are also aimed at saving airlines money.
The pilots or airline personnel on the ground also can trigger the data stream at any time if they have concerns or want to watch some errant system more closely.
Emergency use is an added benefit — improved safety and easier search-and-rescue through the automatic streaming of data when something goes wrong.
Hayden flatly dismisses the notion asserted by some aviation experts in the past week that there isn’t enough bandwidth to do this.
FLYHT’s system uses the current Iridium satellite constellation, whose bandwidth is “like an old dial-up modem,” he said. Nevertheless, he said, the system transmits 200 pieces of data from the flight data recorder and the GPS system every second.
But the company is barely out of startup mode. It lost about $8 million in the past two years and hopes to make its first slim profit this year.
FLYHT’s boxes are installed in only about 350 airplanes worldwide, including just over 300 commercial jets, almost all retrofits.
Chinese airlines are interested. So are Nigerian airlines. Those are countries where it’s difficult to install ground radar stations in remote areas.
Airbus has approved FLYHT’s technology to be offered as an option on its single-aisle airplanes, and FLYHT shipped its first dozen boxes in January destined for installation on new A320s.
Hayden said FLYHT is in “ongoing discussions” with Boeing.
The human factor
Would any of this technology have helped locate the Malaysia Airlines 777 that vanished March 8
with 239 people on board?
Better flight monitoring could at least have told investigators more about the state of the airplane at the time it disappeared.
Yet it now appears the Malaysia 777 continued flying for hours after dropping off civilian radar screens, with its radar transponder no longer functioning.
A radar transponder can be turned off. And because a pilot has to be able to isolate any avionics system in case of a failure, any tracking mechanism including the FLYHT or Aireon systems could likely be turned off.
Such human intervention could leave us still looking for a lost jet.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org