Since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished on March 8, 2014, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has recommended sweeping changes to flight tracking that will affect new and existing aircraft. These changes, under its Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS) Autonomous Distress Tracking (ADT) concept, adopted in March 2016, incorporate new Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) to prevent a similar episode.
Two SARPs were established—Amendments 39 and 40 to Annex 6 of the Chicago Convention—both applicable Nov. 8, 2018. Amendment 39 establishes an aircraft-tracking time interval of 15 min. that is recommended for all operations of aircraft with a takeoff mass of 27,000 kg (59,524 lb.) and is required for aircraft with a takeoff mass of 45,500 kg flying oceanic routes.
Amendment 40 requires location reporting once per minute for an aircraft in distress, defined by ICAO as one in which aircraft behavior, if uncorrected, could lead to an accident. At the same time, flight-data recordings are to be extended to 25 hr. Amendment 40 will apply to all new passenger and cargo aircraft delivered as of Jan. 1, 2021, with a takeoff mass greater than 27,000 kg; it also recommends including aircraft with a takeoff mass of over 5,700 kg as of the same date. Also recommended is a retrofit of older aircraft, to allow eliminating one of the airplane’s dual emergency locator transmitters (ELTs).
While not technology-specific, the SARP specifies that transmissions should come from an active autonomous system, at least for the flight’s expected duration, and in the event of onboard power loss. This, says ICAO, will enable accident site location within 6 nm.
Vendors see extensive retrofit opportunities, according to major suppliers. One, FLYHT Aerospace Solutions Ltd. of Calgary, Canada, just received a U.S. patent for FLYHTStream, a proprietary automatic exceedance-alerting software product integrated into the company’s Automated Flight Information Reporting System (AFIRS). Introduced in 2014, FLYHTStream was prompted by the loss of Air France Flight 447.
AFIRS is currently used by 70 carriers and provides real-time information as to the operational status of an aircraft, including remote diagnostics and exceedance reports, which are streamed to the airline’s operations center over the Iridium satellite network. As Tom Schmutz, the company’s CEO, reports, AFIRS is currently the only system with the capability to acquire flight data recorder information—in real time—and stream it directly to the ground. “That satisfies the Amendment 40 requirement for timely flight data recorder access,” he notes.
With FLYHTStream, Schmutz explains, if there is an exceedance, the AFIRS is triggered and automatically streams an exceedance report and tracks the aircraft at 20-sec. intervals. Alternatively, the pilot can manually stream the report using a control interface, or the airline operations center can initiate streaming from the ground.
The streamed information is displayed via UpTime, FLYHT Aerospace Solutions’ cloud-based server. “During streaming, the cockpit control display screen is actually simulated, putting you on the flight deck—virtually—to see what is going on,” Schmutz says.
At this year’s Paris Air Show, Rockwell Collins and Airbus announced Onboard Aircraft Tracking, designed to work with Rockwell Collins’s ARINC MultiLink flight-tracking data-feed system. ARINC MultiLink, which is deployable on the aircraft and within an airline’s operations center, determines the aircraft’s position and reports it every 15 min. Onboard Aircraft Tracking, which is aircraft-based, would trigger position reporting by the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) at 1 min. intervals when an abnormal condition arises.
According to David Nieuwsma, senior vice president of Rockwell Collins information management services, Onboard Aircraft Tracking was specifically developed at the request of Airbus, which defined what event, or combination of events, would trigger the1 min. position reporting sequence. The generated data is streamed over the ARINC global network and presented on the airline’s flight data display.
Nieuwsma adds that Onboard Aircraft Tracking will be standard equipment on the Airbus A350 WXB and A380, and an option for the A320, A330 and A340 families. Retrofit involves a software upgrade as part of the data load update, primarily in the flight management system (FMS). “Data loads are typical and are incorporated into the normal 28-day data update, or synchronized update cycle,” he says.
Rockwell Collins, reports Nieuwsma, anticipates a retrofit market of about 2,000 Airbus aircraft. “Since it does not involve any new equipage or certification activity, I expect this to be a very easy adoption by the airlines,” he adds.
Geneva-based Sitaonair’s approach to distress tracking is strictly ground-based, using its Aircom FlightTracker, in production since January 2015. More than 50 customers have installed the system since it went into service with Malaysia Airlines and Air Europa.
“With most modern aircraft, FlightTracker will track the aircraft through Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast “Out” (ADS-B “Out”); however, it will work with any data sources on the aircraft,” says Paul Gibson, portfolio director for Aircom.
“It’s an active tracking system. When it detects that the aircraft exits ADS-B “Out” coverage—about 200 nm—FlightTracker will stimulate another system, such as ACARS, causing the aircraft to begin to communicate its position,” he explains. “By doing this, we can make sure it does not fly beyond the 15-min. tracking window.”
FlightTracker can trigger alerts if the aircraft has stopped reporting its position, if it detects lateral or vertical deviations from flight plan or enters a geographical zone the airline has determined it shouldn’t be in. “The airline sets the parameters,” says Gibson.
Sitaonair is setting up FlightTracker in conjunction with Aireon, which is providing an ADS-B payload on each satellite being launched into low Earth orbit by Iridium, as part of its Next constellation. FlightTracker is also teaming with FlightAware, which provides aircraft-position data streaming.
In another new flight-tracking development, the McMurdo Division of Orolia announced its emergency locator transmitter distress-tracking (ELT-DT) system at the Paris Air Show. Marketed as the Kannad GADSS ELT-DT, entry into service is slated for 2019, according to Christian Belleux, aviation and military product line director for France-based Orolia. Working with the Cospas-Sarsat satellite-based search-and-rescue organization, it is designed to locate an aircraft globally and issue an alert, in flight, if a distress situation is detected by the aircraft’s avionics.
Belleux says that Kannad is the first ELT-DT on the market and is being offered as an upgrade to an aircraft’s existing ELT, although a software upgrade will be required for the FMS or other computer directly involved with analysis of the aircraft’s flight parameters.
Totally autonomous, with its own power source, it is designed for 20 hr. of tracking in the event of a distress situation. “A system failure will activate the beacon. The aircraft essentially decides if it is in distress,” says Belleux. “Also, a key feature is that it can be activated from the ground via the Galileo Command Service.”
Orolia provides beacons and ground-based search-and-rescue stations, along with software allowing decisions on distress management at mission control center as well as at rescue coordination centers. “We are proposing a full end-to-end system in that sense,” Belleux says.