ICAO mulls remotely activated distress beacons

The international aviation community is to examine the option of tamper-proof emergency locator transmitters (ELT) activated automatically upon detection of an onboard emergency.
UN aviation agency ICAO continues to meet today to address public calls for industry-wide global flight tracking following the disappearance of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
In a discussion paper presented to the ICAO summit, the European Union said properly addressing the issue of intentional disconnection of onboard communications systems – one scenario proposed in the disappearance of Flight MH370 – and informing the competent authorities of the position of a missing aircraft upon request, will require new technological elements on board, or evolution of existing technologies.
European safety officials will tell the ICAO summit that one possible cost effective means of compliance would be the new return link service used by the international Cospas-Sarsat programme which is a satellite-based search and rescue alert detection system.
That would allow a search and rescue mission control centre or MCC to remotely activate the locator beacon which would then automatically report its position.
“Provisions should be made so that these ELTs can only be de-activated by the MCC, but not by aircrew,” stated the authors of the working paper.
The ELT is fitted with its own battery and can transmit independently once triggered. The Triggered Flight Data Transmission Working Group set up in the wake of the Air France Flight 447 accident in 2009 has identified a number of possible triggers for an ELT activated in flight.
In order to be effective such an ELT would however need to be able to detect an emergency situation and start broadcasting a signal within seconds.
“In the light of the MH370 case, it has become important that the list of triggers includes intentional disconnection events in addition to safety events,” stated the authors of the working paper. “Situations, such as flight recorder disconnections, loss of communications (transponder, ADS-B signals, satellite communications, etc.) or significant change of route, should activate the ELT or the transmission of the inflight aircraft position in a way that nobody on board can stop this alert and positioning transmission.”
The option of using new-generation ELTs could be a huge help to search and rescue and accident investigation authorities, in particular in the case of a non-cooperative aircraft and when investigating accidents over water where the aircraft wreckage is difficult to locate.
In its own paper the ICAO Secretariat adds: “The aircraft component for global tracking may need to gather and transmit parameters…without any human intervention. The extent that such autonomy is needed will have an impact on the design of systems that could support such a requirement. Most air traffic service systems, for example, rely on some types of human intervention, whether it is ensuring that the transponder is turned on, making sure that the correct code is selected, or associating the transponder code with a call sign. The need to gather and transmit parameters, such as those described above, without any human intervention needs to be addressed.”
In its discussion paper Europe argues: “The core issue is to address public expectations that the aviation system can cope with situations such as the disappearance of flights including AF447 and MH370. For the general public, it has become unthinkable that a flight can simply disappear; an aircraft should be permanently tracked, even beyond radar coverage and in case of an accident, it should be immediately located.”