Industry mulls real-time distress tracking

Global aviation is looking at ways to broadcast automatic alerts once an aircraft goes off course through an escalating series of triggered alarms.
Speaking at the recent ATC Global conference in Beijing, Henk Hof spoke about UN aviation agency ICAO’s vision of improvements in surveillance and aircraft tracking technology which in the long term could help prevent aircraft going missing such as the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines MH370.
Hof heads a ICAO working group on aircraft tracking which is committed to developing a high level concept of operations that could eventually become a standard way of operating for airlines across the world.
In the wake of MH370, ICAO convened a summit to discuss ways forward including near, mid and longer term activities. In terms of immediate efforts, ICAO said it would support the work of a task force led by international airline body IATA which is due to present identified solutions and recommendations by a revised date of early December.
ICAO said that near term efforts would focus on a performance-based approach that would assess existing technical and procedural options to enable flight tracking capability in the global fleet in readiness for universal flight tracking standards that would ensure full implementation around the world and uniform regulatory frameworks.
In the first ever presentation of the ICAO working group’s findings, Hof set out ICAO’s proposals for a Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS) along similar lines to the international maritime industry.
He said the working group had started by analysing key areas such as aircraft systems, air traffic management, search and rescue systems and information management before producing a number of high-level requirements for a future ‘system’ and a proposed concept of operation.
Within this, airlines will continue to track aircraft during normal operations; abnormal events would then trigger more frequent reporting to alert the airline to any and, if the situation worsens, autonomous distress tracking will be triggered using systems independent of the aircraft’s own systems or power supply. In the worst-case scenario, a flight recorder attached to the surface of the aircraft automatically deploy.
“The proposed conops appears, at least in theory, to be fairly straightforward,” said Alan Corner of UK-based consultancy Helios who chaired the ATC Global session. “The concept is performance-based and does not define the technology or systems to be used. Rather, it throws down a gauntlet to suppliers to propose solutions. SITA and Inmarsat presented a range of technologies that are available now and could be adapted to meet the requirements, although it is not clear which approach the industry will take.”
Speaking to Air Traffic Management earlier this year Philip Clinch, SITA’s vice president of aircraft services pointed out that getting the position data will be relatively easy. “The hard part will be identifying which aircraft movements justify setting off alerts because if the airline tracking system alerts at every movement it will have no credibility,” says Clinch.
He thinks identifying which movements should generate an alert will require knowledge of why the pilot is making aircraft movements. It will also require seeing both ATC instructions to the pilot and flight dispatcher communications with the pilot to exclude explainable movements. “This aircraft tracking will be looking for a needle in a haystack and following that metaphor it will require learning a lot more about how to recognise all the pieces of hay that pose no problem to be able to identify the one needle that looks wrong.”
Hof tells Air Traffic Management: “The working group is close to completing the draft concept of operations of the Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS). Aircraft tracking is one of the components in this concept. We will deliver to ICAO by the end of September,” adding that the GADSS concept of operations will  integrate the work of the IATA-led ATTF.

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