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We put a few questions to Inmarsat about their services and tracking aircraft.  The answers are fascinating in light of recent events.

  • In the wake of AF447 and MH370, it would seem the case for tracking aircraft is self-evident. Should this tracking be on all aircraft or only those in distress?

Tracking – or position reporting – should be on every trans-oceanic aircraft.  Many airlines already routinely [and voluntarily] report their position using Inmarsat’s services. In fact, on average, operators report aircraft position every 22 minutes, rising to 18 minutes on North Atlantic routes where there is a mandate for use of Future Air Navigation System (FANS) capabilities, which includes position reporting to Air Traffic Control via ADS-C.

Some aircraft operators report aircraft position already as frequently as every 2 minutes. This usage reinforces that the benefit of position reporting is clearly understood by aircraft operators and the cost of position reports is not a constraint in any way.

Over 90% of all wide-bodied trans-oceanic jets already have the equipment installed.

  • How much bandwidth is there to handle commercial aircraft?

In terms of tracking data, bandwidth is not an issue. Inmarsat’s Classic Aero service, currently installed on 90% of wide-bodied aircraft, is more than capable of transmitting position data for all commercial aircraft flying over the ocean.

  • How complex is it to develop a system which activates a signal and a data stream if something “odd” happens on the flight deck? i.e. ACARS or other equipment is switched off.

The technical solutions already exist to ‘trigger’ a position report or to start streaming Flight Data Recorder (FDR) information: Inmarsat’s Classic Aero or SwiftBroadband with ACARS for position reporting and SwiftBroadband for FDR streaming.

SwiftBroadband is more appropriate to the FDR data because it supports IP data communications, which are more suited to streaming data continuously or sending ‘snapshot’ data files, and is more efficient and so cheaper.

The practical issue that needs to be further evaluated to facilitate the widespread adoption of such uses of satcom are what events or scenarios will trigger the start of the download or streaming? This is because it is not necessary to stream the data all the time, only when some scenario occurs that would initiate streaming, and while costs are not prohibitive, there is still a cost of sending data to the ground over any system, not just satellite.

Ideally, data would only be streamed for the period immediately prior to the ‘trigger’ event but this may be too close to aircraft systems failing and risk the data not being downloaded successfully from the aircraft – hence the discussion of continual streaming and the attendant cost question.

This proved challenging for the industry to solve after AF447, so what may make more sense is at least periodic data file downloads with ‘snapshots’ of critical aircraft system parameters, position etc.

  • Will we see airlines consider the options IATA is suggesting and then quietly do nothing because of the cost?

In terms of position reporting, cost is not really the issue.  We are talking about dollars per flight to transmit location data at frequent intervals and, for the vast majority of trans-oceanic jets, the equipment needed is already installed.  We believe that the experience of flight MH370 will provide strong impetus for all airlines flying across oceans to ensure their planes are tracked.

  • What are the ranges in cost of “thin client” data streams? i.e. position, speed, altitude

The cost of streaming these key metrics at regular intervals is low; essentially we’re talking about dollars (not hundreds of dollars) per flight. 

  • Could satellite technology ever provide an alternative to the Flight Data Recorder?

The answer to this question is yes but with caveats.  Firstly, it is vital to say that satellite connectivity should be a complement to and not a replacement for the Flight Data Recorder (FDR).  Redundancy has been a central factor in the airline industry’s ever improving safety record and this should remain.

That said, the terminals capable to streaming key elements of FDR data are already installed on thousands of trans-oceanic aircraft.  This broadband capability presently supports cabin connectivity services but is going through the final stages of approval for use as a safety service in the cockpit. When this is completed in 2015, it would be possible to stream Flight Data Recorder type information off an aircraft in flight.

Continually streaming all the data parameters that are also stored on a Flight Data Recorder is not a practical solution.  However, key data could be transmitted off an aircraft following a ‘trigger’ event. This ‘trigger’ could be the deviation of an aircraft from its pre-agreed flight plan or when an aircraft’s monitoring system detects an anomaly. 

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