Opinion

Aircraft tracking explained

6 Feb 2015 by BusinessTraveller

Almost a year after the disappearance of MH370, Alexander Freeman looks at global developments in aircraft tracking, what the industry is saying, and how much it might cost.

Aircraft tracking. Two words we’ve heard a lot of over the last year.

Most recently, the crash of Air Asia flight 8501 brought back memories of MH370’s disappearance almost a year ago as search and rescue teams took days to locate the aircraft’s wreckage and several weeks to locate the back boxes.

As frequent travellers, many of us have until now assumed that from the moment we board an aircraft to the moment we step off at the other end, the airline and air traffic control (ATC) know exactly where that aircraft is at any given time.

Aircraft taking off

And usually they do. Primary Surveillance Radar (PSR) works by sending out a pulse of radio energy which reflects off the surface of the aircraft back to the radar receiver. While this acts independently from the aircraft, one of the main problems with PSR is that it doesn’t correlate a return with a particular aircraft.

This is where the transponder comes in. Transponders are part of what is known as Secondary Surveillance Radar (SSR). The transponder picks up a signal from the ground and verifies it with a coded reply which identifies the aircraft. The problem with MH370 was that the transponder was not operating, either because it was turned off or for other reasons.

Complicating things further is that, PSR is most effective when an aircraft is over land. Once an aircraft is about 240km out to sea, radar coverage fades and it keeps in contact with the ground (and other aircraft) via high frequency radio. This requires the pilots to actively maintain contact rather than the aircraft being monitored on the ground.

As we saw with MH370, once the aircraft turned around and flew out over the Indian Ocean with its transponder inoperative and the pilots failing to communicate, ATC or the airline’s ability to track that aircraft effectively disappeared.

This reality sent shock waves throughout the flying public and the aviation industry with airline bodies such as IATA calling for immediate action on the issue.

To address this, the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in Montreal has this week brought together aviation experts and strategic decision makers to a four-day conference. Its purpose: to discuss emerging safety issues facing the industry today. At the top of their agenda will be the global tracking of aircraft.

The conference will be the second of its kind, the first occurring in May last year shortly after the disappearance of MH370.

ICAO said they “will provide the international civil aviation community the opportunity to build consensus, obtain commitments and formulate recommendations deemed necessary for the effective and efficient progress of key aviation safety activities”.

Leading the agenda will be the potential development of a Global Distress Safety System, whose aim will be to enhance the capability to track aircraft, locate an accident site and retrieve Cockpit Voice Recorder and Flight Data Recorder information.

In the case of MH370, while the aircraft was being tracked by ATC, once the aircraft’s transponder stopped sending a signal, the primary tracking methods stopped. Both the Malaysian and Thai military confirmed their radar picked up the aircraft but without the transponder verifying the aircraft’s ID, the connection wasn’t reportedly made until the next morning when news of the fligh’’s disappearance broke.

In the end, the reason we know the general route MH370’s took in its final hours is due to a series of “pings” that were being passively intercepted by satellite. These pings were being emitted on a regular basis, rather than due to any deliberate tracking of the aircraft.

Inmarsat, which operates the satellite, was able to place the aircraft in the middle of the Indian Ocean, west of Perth, within a specific range from the location of the final ping.

Keep in mind, however, that the pings were only being transmitted hourly, which resulted in a massive search area of 23,000 miles (or 60,000 kilometres).

Shortly after the disappearance, Malaysia’s Prime Minister acknowledged that satellite data had “never before [been] used in an investigation of this sort”.

This then begs the question: why aren’t planes being tracked if the technology exists to do so? Furthermore, if the plane had been tracked every five minutes, rather than every hour, would authorities have located the aircraft by now given the search area would have been significantly less.

The answer has largely to do with cost. At a minimum, figures being discussed place the projected cost of tracking, including live data streaming of flight data, at between $1,500 – $5,000 per aircraft per month. This, for an airline with a fleet of 150 aircraft is an additional US$3 to $9 million cost to their bottom line annually.

In addition, airlines would be paying for technology many aircraft already partially have installed, such as the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting system (ACARS), which collects on-board data such as location, altitude, heading and speed, and transmits it back to the provider’s network.

The problem with this technology is that it can be turned off, as was reportedly the case on MH370. Airlines would therefore be taking on this additional cost primarily for circumstances where the aircraft is lost over sea and where the transponder, ACARS and other communication systems have failed. Circumstances which are statistically highly unlikely but, as MH370 has shown, not impossible.

Nevertheless, the Malaysian government has highlighted that while real-time tracking of commercial aircraft will have a financial impact, it’s too vital to ignore: “We believe, based on our unfortunate experience, (it) will be offset by the benefits of enhancing the effectiveness of the alerting and search and rescue services.”

The airlines, however, are considering the cost of this technology.

IATA President Tony Tyler said: “Much technology already exists that would enable [tracking] to happen. We need to review them and one of the issues is the cost. It would be wrong to say that this is not an important consideration.”

Some aircraft operators have quietly rejected the necessity, or commercial viability, of introducing such additional technology arguing that, while it may assist in finding an aircraft sooner, it won’t reduce the likelihood of crashes occurring in the first place.

Nevertheless, it has been suggested that in the recent Air Asia crash, had the aircraft been located sooner, lives may have been saved.

Several airlines have responded positively with Qatar Airways announcing that it plans to equip its fleet with a tracking system that will automatically transmit flight data to the airline’s operations department.

While this technology isn’t new, airlines haven’t necessarily been forced to use it. They might soon be obliged to do so with the global aviation regulator ICAO announcing on February 4 that its member states had agreed to the recommendation of 15-minute aircraft tracking as “an important first step in providing a foundation for global flight tracking”.

Several airlines are also looking at taking preventative steps by removing the potential for any tampering with the transponder, including taking tracking control away from pilots, despite opposition from airline pilot unions.

Other technology being considered is Airbus’ suggestion of an ejectable black box that floats as a way of getting access to wreckage faster and more reliably.

With the MH370 aircraft still missing, and no recent developments on how and why it disappeared, investment in technology that allows us to locate missing aircraft quicker and more effectively is something airlines and governments are being forced to deal with. Regardless of the cost.

Read our contributor biography of Alexander Freeman

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