Upgrades on the way for plane flight tracking


SEATTLE: As search teams scour the seas around Southeast Asia for signs of a Boeing 777 airliner that has been missing more than a week, the current technology for tracking of flights is under intense scrutiny.

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.

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.

Richard Hayden, a director and former president of FLYHT Aerospace Solutions, says his small, startup avionics company based in Calgary, Alberta, has a solution that works.

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 after 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, or 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.

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.

The solution is the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B—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.

The technology will be mandatory for airliners flying in the U.S. by 2020, and two years earlier in Europe.



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