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Flight tracking has came a long way. But as TPG Contributor John Walton explains, the technology still has a way to go before it can fully track flights across the globe.
When Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared in March 2014, people outside the aviation industry were surprised to learn that not all aircraft are tracked throughout the flight. In December of the same year, AirAsia Indonesia flight QZ8501 crashed into the shallow Java Sea and was found only after a matter of weeks. The Indonesian government’s ability to locate and retrieve the aircraft, the bodies of its passengers and the data crucial to learning from the crash brought to light the the technology of flight tracking.
Flying is already very safe, but aircraft tracking is one of the ways the aviation industry is working to make it even safer, and it would have been useful in both of these events. There are three principal reasons to track aircraft: for safe and efficient air traffic control, for airline operations and in the event of an incident.
The aviation industry and its regulators are currently working on flight tracking, although progress has not been as fast as many would like, and the future of flight tracking has not yet been fully outlined.
Currently, aircraft are tracked in at least one of three ways: ANSP radar, ACARS and ADS-B.
ANSP: Air Navigation Service Providers are commonly called Air Traffic Control and use ground radar stations to track planes. This is essentially updated 1950s technology, with a range of up to 300 ground miles. In the US, this is currently operated by the FAA, but other countries successfully run it as a public corporation. As a surprise to no one, Congress has (as this video from 1994 shows) been dragging its feet on this for far too long.
ACARS: The Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System is the best of 1970s tech – think of it as somewhere between the telegraph and SMS text messages, as it allows data transmissions between the aircraft and the ground. Those transmissions can include messages from the flight deck or automated information from the aircraft itself.
ADS-B: Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast is the current standard. The aircraft determines its latitude and longitude via satellite and broadcasts them, together with altitude, via radio. ADS-B ground stations then receive that information.
ADS-B is the current standard of flight tracking. It’s an existing air traffic requirement over much of Australia, and forms part of initiatives like the US FAA’s NextGen system and the EU Single European Sky.
Ian Petchenik, the public face of FlightRadar24 — yes, the same site that you see on the news every time a major aircraft crashes or goes missing — outlines why ADS-B is so useful. “We rely on ADS-B, as it is now the predominant tool for tracking aircraft, as mandates to install the technology around the world come into force,” Petchenik tells me. “We’re committed to global coverage and ADS-B offers us a path to get to that point. ADS-B also offers a wealth of information that other technologies don’t, for instance the ability to transmit real-time weather information.”
Of course, it does have issues. Petchenik notes, “ADS-B is currently limited in range, as it relies on ground stations to receive the signal, so flights over open water are often out of coverage for some time. The challenge now is to find technology and methods to extend coverage to over-water flights, for example satellites or ocean buoys capable of receiving ADS-B signals. There also needs to be a solution to the problem that the transponder can be deactivated by the pilot.”
“For truly global flight tracking, options are limited,” Petchenik says. “ACARS may be an option, but many aircraft aren’t equipped and the technology is older.”
Some airlines, including Lufthansa and Qatar Airways, are sending internal position reports over existing data links. This, however, is expensive. UN aviation body ICAO recommended a 15-minute aircraft tracking Standard earlier this year, with the EU recommending a three-minute Standard in the 2020s. This work takes place in the context of international ICAO-driven movement toward the Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS), which is the most likely future of aircraft tracking.
Essentially, GADSS outlines four key ways of working (warning: PDF): a normal operations mode for air traffic control and airline use; an abnormal operations mode for when something starts to go wrong; a distress mode for a serious event that starts transmitting distress signals; and a data recovery mode for an actual crash. Another way of thinking about it is that the key is to know where aircraft are flying, to learn when they are in distress, to better be able to rescue passengers and to be better able to recover data from a crash site (whether on land or water).
Much of this system is automated, with triggers to activate higher modes based on a number of factors or events from the ground or on the aircraft. ICAO suggests that automatic triggers might include unusual attitude (pitching up or down, for example) or speed, loss of engine power and ground proximity warnings. Pilots (and, notionally, cabin crew) could also trigger a higher mode of operation.
As an event gets more serious, more data is sent from the aircraft. For instance, in abnormal operations mode, data would be sent at least once a minute, much more frequently than in normal operations mode.
While the flight crew does have some control over the system during normal and abnormal operations modes, distress and data recovery modes cannot be isolated by the cockpit. The discussions around data recovery mode also provide an option for providing a minimum dataset from the CVR and FDR “black boxes,” and an automatic floatable beacon-data combo device. ICAO expects GADSS to be able to immediately localize a crash site to within 6 nautical miles (7 ground miles), as well as to speed up the lessons learned from a crash — which is a vital part of how the aviation industry has become as safe as it is.
And that’s the crux of the matter: Airliners and the commercial airline remain incredibly safe. It’s significantly more dangerous to drive to the airport or cross the road to reach public transport than to take a flight. The work that is going on to create these new standards and implement them should give passengers a lot of comfort in knowing that their safety is in good hands.
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