Malaysia Takeoff

The Proliferation of Flight-Tracking Services Begins to Bewilder

These days, almost every air traveller is familiar with the terrific capabilities of top public-oriented flight-tracking services such as FlightAware and Flightradar24.

Using such services, passengers can see in advance if their flights are likely to arrive or depart on time. And, because the services make use of networks of thousands of Automatic Dependent Surveillance - Broadcast (ADS-B) ground receivers worldwide, and take feeds of multilateration and other aircraft-position data from air traffic control centres internationally, they also show the public a variety of navigation and identification details about aircraft in flight in near-real time.

This capability is possible because the ADS-B Out avionics systems installed in most modern commercial aircraft broadcast dozens of parameters every half-second in 1090 Extended Squitter signals sent from the 1090ES transponders installed in the aircraft.

When in line-of-sight range of ground-based ADS-B receiving stations – the range is about 250nm at normal cruising altitudes – this ADS-B Out data allows air navigation service providers (ANSPs) to perform full positional surveillance of all equipped aircraft, for air traffic management (ATM) purposes.

Using ground-based ADS-B, ANSPs can perform surveillance to within an accuracy of 1.5 seconds’ flight time and the positional accuracy ADS-B offers is never worse than within eight seconds’ flight time. (This capability doesn’t work over oceans or in very remote territory, hence the need until space-based ADS-B becomes operational for procedural ATM control of aircraft operating in such airspace beyond about 250nm from the nearest ADS-B ground station.)

The ADS-B Out parameters broadcast by aircraft include details such as the aircraft’s registration marking, its serial number, the flight number it is operating, the flight’s origin and destination airports, the aircraft’s altitude, its vertical and horizontal speed, its heading, its track and its estimated time of arrival.

Along with several other much-used public-oriented flight-tracking services, FlightAware and Flightradar24 – probably the best-known public-oriented flight-tracking services – have thousands of corporate and government customers throughout the world.

These range from news organisations to national civil aviation authorities and from airports – which use flight-tracking services’ feeds to provide updates about incoming and outbound flights to passengers checking the airports’ websites – to business-aviation operators’ flight operations departments.

But in the past two years a new category of flight-tracking services has emerged. These services aim to satisfy the need – by November 2018 a mandatory one – for every airline in the world to be able to know where every one of its airborne aircraft is to within a 15-minute flying distance while in normal flight.

They will have to do so because of ICAO’s forthcoming Normal Aircraft Tracking Implementation Initiative (NATII) requirement, which arose from the vanishing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on 8 March 2014.

The fact a large widebody aircraft with hundreds of passengers and crew on board could be lost so utterly and (for many months) without leaving any trace of where it might have ended up, yet the position of every human being on Earth carrying an activated mobile phone is known to within a few yards, was beyond comprehension to most of the human race.

Beyond NATII, ICAO plans to mandate, for every new aircraft entering service after 1 January 2021, that any aircraft entering a distress-flight condition (a term as yet only loosely defined) must automatically start broadcasting its position at intervals of one minute or less.

This planned requirement, which comes under ICAO’s proposed Global Aeronautical Distress Safety System (GADSS), follows analysis of 42 aircraft accidents. This analysis showed that, in 95 per cent of cases, if an aircraft reported its position no more than a minute before it crashed, the location of the crash site was within a radius of 6nm of the aircraft’s last known position.

The governments of Malaysia and nearby Singapore reacted quickly to the shocking disappearance of flight MH370 by requiring all the airlines domiciled in the two nations to develop rapidly the capability to track every aircraft in their fleets and have the aircraft provide position reports at least once a minute.

Malaysia Airlines was required by its national government to have this capability in place by the summer of 2015 and each airline resident in Singapore was required to have the same capability operational by July 2016. All managed it.

This urgent need brought about the emergence of the new class of flight-tracking services. These services seek airlines themselves as customers and from the start they have aimed to offer the one-minute distress-tracking accuracy proposed under GADSS.

Although satellite operators such as Inmarsat, Iridium and ViaSat already offered airlines the capability to track their aircraft historically in the event of a flight disappearing, the capability was a by-product of the periodic need for telecommunications satellites and aircraft to “ping” each other to ensure communications channels between them were still open and operational.

However, the new flight-tracking services are designed to make one-minute tracking of every aircraft in an airline’s fleet a basic capability from the get-go.

Probably the first to emerge was the FlightTracker service offered by aeronautical telecommunications provider SITAONAIR, which designed its service to offer airline customers automated alerts whenever an aircraft strayed away from any of a set of positional parameters the customer could programme. This allowed airlines to “manage by exception”, according to SITAONAIR, so a customer airline’s operations control staff didn’t need to watch every one of its aircraft every moment the aircraft was in flight.

Working with both Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines, SITAONAIR brought the FlightTracker service into operation in early 2015, refining its programmable parameters further over the following year to reduce the number of false alerts the system was generating for its initial customers. Now, 18 months after SITAONAIR launched the FlightTracker service, it reckons some 45 airlines have signed up for it.

Other companies soon began offering airlines flight-tracking services as well. Most of these products work by combining, into unified positional signals, several separate sets of positional data generated by commercial aircraft: ADS-B 1090ES signals, FANS/ADS-C signals, high frequency data link performance data, and GPS and inertial navigation system data, for instance.

Known for its prominence in the in-flight entertainment and communications equipment-manufacturing business, Panasonic Avionics started offering airlines a flight-tracking service of this kind, showing aircraft positions via Airmap display screens the company makes.

Using a similar combined-source positional signal technique, Rockwell Collins, a leading manufacturer of avionics equipment for commercial aircraft, began offering its NATII-capable, 15-minute MultiLink tracking service to airlines. Aeromexico became the launch customer for MultiLink and soon 11 other airlines began trialling the service.

Very recently, space-based ADS-B company Aireon, which plans to begin offering ANSPs a globally capable ADS-B service for ATM surveillance purposes from the first half of 2018, has partnered with FlightAware to offer a GlobalBeacon flight-tracking service to airlines. When fully operational in 2018, the service plans to offer one-minute distress-tracking capabilities long before ICAO makes these mandatory through GADSS.

FlightAware has also long been a partner of SITAONAIR in the FlightTracker service. But FlightAware doesn’t consider it a conflict of interest adding Aireon as another partner offering a different flight-tracking service, competitive with FlightTracker, because FlightAware’s main business is to sell its data and data-packaging expertise to whatever customers want to buy it.

Qatar Airways, which claims to have proprietary in-house aircraft tracking capabilities for its own fleet, has become the launch customer for GlobalBeacon. It is to be hoped Aireon and FlightAware don’t find Qatar Airways and its very finicky CEO as demanding and exasperating a launch customer as Boeing, Airbus and Pratt & Whitney have done.

Now comes news that Flightradar24, in partnership with Airbus Defence and Space and GomSpace, is experimenting with autonomous robotic sea craft and low-earth orbit nanosatellites, all fitted with ADS-B receivers, to expand its terrestrial ADS-B coverage to the Earth’s oceans in order to provide near-global ADS-B coverage.

Flightradar24 says it already has many government customers and that it has received interest from governments and airlines in the potential expansion of its ADS-B data feeds.

This may well be, but if Flightradar24 launches a professional one-minute flight-tracking service, airlines wanting to become compliant with ICAO’s future flight-tracking mandates will have at least five commercial services available from which to choose. The airline-standard flight-tracking market is beginning to look rather crowded and a little bewildering in the complexity of choice it offers.

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