Keeping tabs on passenger aircraft

When Amelia Earhart and her Lockheed Electra vanished over the South Pacific in 1937, the loss was mourned but also accepted as a workplace hazard of the early aviation pioneer.

Almost 80 years later, the disappearance without trace of a Malaysia Airlines 777 carrying 239 people defies belief – such calamities just shouldn’t be possible in an era of satellite communications, high-power civil and military radar coverage and in-flight connectivity.

Now British satellite company Inmarsat is proposing a solution to avoid any repeat of the tragic farce that has been the fruitless search for flight MH370.

This would see Inmarsat-equipped aircraft – which already comprises almost all the global widebody fleet – transmit position data every 15 minutes to a network of satellites.

In addition, trigger events such as a course deviation would result in preceding cockpit voice recorder data being uploaded from the aircraft, creating a so-called ‘black box in the cloud’.

Such improvements would complement (and partially obviate) last week’s proposals by EASA to increase voice recorder storage from two to 20 hours, and to increase the battery life of black boxes from 30 to 90 days in order to aid recovery efforts.

Airbus and Boeing both lodged objections to the cost of EASA’s plans, though Inmarsat’s fleet-wide solution would be paid for by the company itself, at a cost of about $3m per year. The technical challenge, according to Inmarsat, would involve nothing more than an upgrade of its back-office systems.

This raises an obvious question: if aircraft tracking can be achieved so simply, why hasn’t it been done already?

A spokesperson for Inmarsat told Talking Point that technology has only recently caught up: “Our new generation of satcomm systems has in-built position reporting. Recent events have incentivised Inmarsat to implement and disseminate the same capabilities on our existing systems.”

Inmarsat already relays distress calls on its maritime network for free, which may prompt some to wonder why sparsely crewed cargo ships are easier to locate than densely packed passenger aircraft.

In the case of MH370, there have been reports that its Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System was switched off, although the airline was only thought to use ACARS to send engine data in any case.

Nonetheless, the possibility remains that Inmarsat’s tracking solution could also be disabled manually.

“Onboard switching capabilities are dependent on specific operating procedures and aircraft models,” a company spokesperson said.

One way to counter any malign or accidental interference could be to include scenarios such as the disabling of an aircraft’s satcomm broadcaster in the list of ‘trigger events’ outlined above.

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