New global alert system to aid future QZ8501-type search effort

QZ8501_flight_pathCalls for mandatory real-time flight tracking enabling an aircraft’s position to be known at all times are mounting following the loss of Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501, writes Aimée Turner.

The Airbus A320-216 flight disappeared en route to Singapore from Surabaya, Indonesia, on 28 December with 155 passengers and seven crew on board. The aircraft had been under Indonesian air traffic control when it requested deviation from its original flight path due to poor weather conditions.

The aircraft lost contact with air traffic control at 06:17 while travelling near Belitung island, over the Java Sea between Kalimantan and Java.
AirAsia recently began to improve the tracking of its fleet although the actual aircraft that went missing had not yet been upgraded, according to a Wall Street Journal report. Concern is now being expressed over the speed with which airlines are likely to equip their fleets with off-the-shelf technology that can help search and rescue efforts pinpoint with timely accuracy the location at which an aircraft has entered the water.
And yet, the airline industry is resisting any imminent mandate despite the efforts of a task force led by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) which was charged earlier this year with making recommendations on how airlines should best adopt a near-term framework for real-time aircraft tracking.
The task force was established after the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines MH370 which went missing on March 8 with 239 people on board en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Performance Approach
Supported by UN aviation body ICAO, IATA spent several months leading the industry task force to agree near-term measures in readiness for a universal system. Even so, IATA chief Tony Tyler underlined from the outset that – certainly in the short term – a performance-based approach would be the industry’s preferred course of action. This would allow airlines to fulfil any requirements for better position reporting in a variety of ways relying upon current levels of equipage and using existing procedures – essentially implementing the least costly and time-consuming fixes.
“We have multiple layers and capabilities for tracking aircraft already – from position reporting by the pilot to sophisticated satellite-based systems,” Tyler told an aviation law forum in September. “But we must recognise that the global fleet includes some aircraft with the most advanced technologies available on board as well as aircraft that are not so well-equipped.”
While the IATA task force recommendation of a 12-month timetable for ‘quick fixes’ was rejected, ultimately, the long term vision of a universal, real-time tracking system called GADSS currently being developed by ICAO will require aircraft to automatically report their position at least every 15 minutes in normal operations. In case of emergencies where aircraft go off course from their original filed flight paths, more frequent tracking will activate at intervals of at least once per minute.

Industry ponders remotely activated distress beacons The international aviation community is being urged to examine the option of tamper-proof emergency locator transmitters (ELT) activated automatically upon detection of an onboard emergency. In a discussion paper presented to UN aviation agency ICAO at its two-day summit in May 2014 to address public calls for industry-wide global flight tracking, the European Union said industry needed to properly address the issue of intentional disconnection of onboard communications systems – one scenario proposed in the disappearance of MH370.  Any future system to relay information to competent authorities as to the position of a missing aircraft upon request, would however require new onboard technology, or at least an evolution of existing technologies. European safety officials said one possible cost effective means of compliance would be the new return link service used by Cospas, an international, humanitarian search and rescue system that uses satellites to detect and locate emergency beacons.  That service would allow a search and rescue mission control centre or MCC to remotely activate an aircraft’s locator beacon fitted with its own battery which would automatically report its position independently. “Provisions should be made so that these ELTs can only be de-activated by the MCC, but not by aircrew,” state the authors. The Triggered Flight Data Transmission Working Group set up in the wake of the Air France Flight 447 accident in 2009 identified a number of possible triggers for an ELT activated in flight.  “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,” state European officials. “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: “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, 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.” Aimée Turner
Prospects of remotely activated distress beacons
The international aviation community is being urged to examine the option of tamper-proof emergency locator transmitters (ELT) activated automatically upon detection of an onboard emergency.
In a discussion paper presented to UN aviation agency ICAO at its two-day summit in May 2014 to address public calls for industry-wide global flight tracking, the European Union said industry needed to properly address the issue of intentional disconnection of onboard communications systems – one scenario proposed in the disappearance of MH370.
Any future system to relay information to competent authorities as to the position of a missing aircraft upon request, would however require new onboard technology, or at least an evolution of existing technologies.
European safety officials said one possible cost effective means of compliance would be the new return link service used by Cospas, an international, humanitarian search and rescue system that uses satellites to detect and locate emergency beacons.
That service would allow a search and rescue mission control centre or MCC to remotely activate an aircraft’s locator beacon fitted with its own battery which would automatically report its position independently.
“Provisions should be made so that these ELTs can only be de-activated by the MCC, but not by aircrew,” state the authors.
The Triggered Flight Data Transmission Working Group set up in the wake of the Air France Flight 447 accident in 2009 identified a number of possible triggers for an ELT activated in flight.
“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,” state European officials. “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: “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, 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.” Aimée Turner

If the situation worsens, autonomous distress tracking will be triggered using systems independent of aircraft systems or power supply. In the worst-case scenario, a flight recorder attached to the surface of the aircraft will automatically deploy.
How well these measures will be welcomed by a cash-strapped airline industry with little appetite for such technologies remains unclear.
At a United States National Transportation Safety Board industry forum in October, it became increasingly evident that any global agreement on standards and regulations requiring further safety enhancements such as real-time aircraft tracking will be hard won.
Trade-Off
Peggy Gilligan, one of the Federal Aviation Administration’s principal safety chiefs, admitted that aircraft tracking among other safety technologies would be hard to justify under current federal cost-benefit trade-offs and that higher-priority initiatives offered more easily achievable – and quantifiable benefits.
That went against the sounds coming out of Europe where aviation safety regulators are understood to be preparing imminent rules for universal, real-time tracking of aircraft while Airbus, the European airframer admitted it was busy working on a roadmap to develop double combined recorders – one being deployable – for new-build A350 and A380 aircraft.
One industry insider mulled that perhaps the most interesting point of the current IATA and ICAO efforts on real time aircraft tracking will centre on how they will get their various recommendations implemented.
“IATA could relatively quickly make compliance with their tracking recommendations a requirement for airlines to retain IOSA certification,” he said. “For the ICAO member states to move the GADSS manual recommendations into enforceable national regulations will probably take a lot longer. Maybe the states are hoping that having the recommendations out there will show industry the way to go while detailed regulatory requirements go through definition and adoption.”
While the prospect of IATA imposing IOSA-type requirements looks remote, Eurocontrol’s Hof tells Air Traffic Management: “The idea is indeed that the GADSS concept of operations shows the way to go but that industry assumes its responsibility especially in the short term. At some point in the future I expect standards and regulation to become effective to ensure that aircraft tracking is widely and consistently used.”
 
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2 Comments

  1. Why not also require automatically deploying floating electronic location transmitters list ships and large boats have been required to have for years?
    In other words why don’t they require aviation ELTs that meet the also float like marine EPIRBs. (See Wikipedia article titled “Distress radiobeacon”.)
    This would mean an automatic distress call being issued at the time of the crash rather than being declared by air traffic control at the time after which the aircraft was due to land.
    It would also mean a distress call being issued with the precise location of the crash, rather than where the aircraft was 15 minutes earlier.
    Note this may require a second device, a fireproof ELT for crashes on ground and a floating EPIRB for crashes in water.
    But these are small light devices that do not cost cost huge sums of money and utilize not just existing technology but existing S&R notification and reporting infrastructure.

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