Global flight tracking standards take effect as first step in radical GADSS distress safety system

New international rules that mean airlines must report their fleet’s flight positions every 15 minutes became official on November 8 more than four years since the March 2014 disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, writes Aimée Turner.

It is the first – and arguably the least onerous requirement within a new set of standards – to be set by the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) which in the months that followed the disappearance of MH370 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing developed the concept of the Global Aeronautical Distress Safety System or GADSS.

GADSS aims ultimately at improving safety, detection of aircraft in distress, and efficient and effective search and rescue with more sophisticated measures coming on stream that will build on the 15-minute periodic reporting minimum in routine operations.

From January 2021, aircraft rolling off the production lines will for example carry tamper-proof avionics that will – functioning independently of aircraft power systems – report their position once every minute should abnormal flight parameters be detected either onboard or remotely.

An additional future requirement will feature either automatic deployable flight recorders or flight-data streaming mechanisms which will aid the timely recovery of flight data.

Henk Hof heads the ICAO working group on aircraft tracking which developed the high level concept of GADSS operations that will eventually become a standard way of operating for airlines across the world.

It was at a September 2014 industry event that he announced that ICAO was going much further than simple, performance-based flight tracking solutions in the wake of MH370 and that it was examining the route towards a series of universal standards that would ensure full implementation around the world supported by uniform regulatory frameworks.

Today, he reports that GADSS is on track and that airlines are now evaluating their respective route networks and assessing their tracking obligations. “Tracking is the first of the three GADSS functions and already a big step has been taken in a reasonable short time frame,” he told Air Traffic Management on the eve of the flight tracking operational requirement.

The second function will be Autonomous Distress Tracking (ADT) and this, according to Hof, represents more work even though timescales are tight. “The industry is working on architectures and interface standards for the airborne component of the ADT. However, it also requires an infrastructure on the ground in order to make distress tracking information available to actors such as the aircraft operator, rescue coordination centres and ATC,” said Hof.

A global ADT solution must be available by the 2021 applicability date and various options are being explored. The third GADSS function is Post Flight Localisation and Data Recovery which also has an applicability date of 2021.

Emerging approaches here feature Airbus preferring an Automatic Deployable Flight Recorder system that is installed in the tail and ejected at impact whereas Boeing is looking at datastreaming solutions. Neither are understood to require retrofit.

“An outstanding issue, discussed during the recent ICAO Air Navigation Conference, is whether there is a need for a performance-based standard for Post Flight Localisation,” said Hof. “Europe believes that there is a need with the reason being that as per the Annex 6 requirements, operators can remove the automatic Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) when equipped with an ADT.”

“The removal of the automatic ELT would reduce the capability to have accurate post flight localisation and homing, supporting SAR services. This is especially relevant for survivable accidents,” added Hof.

For now, many airlines are demonstrating how the standard which is essential as a tool for situation awareness is also enhancing fleet operations.

Icelandair, for example, plans to integrate FlightAware’s Firehose data feed to enhance its existing operational tools with global flight tracking. The feed will deliver live aircraft position data from FlightAware’s terrestrial network of ADS-B receivers, as well as from Aireon’s space-based ADS-B network.

“While Iceland’s geographical location between North America and Europe has proved to be strategic for building international routes, it has also presented challenges for tracking our aircraft until now,” said Captain Haukur Reynisson, flight operations director at Icelandair. “By integrating live flight tracking data from FlightAware, Icelandair gains incredible situational awareness that will drive operational optimisation and reinforce passenger safety.”

“Icelandair is unique in the sense that 100 per cent of its routes fly over remote bodies of water where precise flight tracking hasn’t been feasible until now,” said Max Tribolet of FlightAware. “Augmenting FlightAware’s terrestrial ADS-B coverage with Aireon’s space-based ADS-B network will ensure position updates of at least once-per-minute anywhere in the world. This means that Icelandair will far outperform the GADSS standard for normal conditions and will proactively meet the 2021 recommendation for tracking aircraft in distress.”

Aireon and FlightAware earlier this week announced that GlobalBeacon had gone live and was providing airlines with global flight tracking ahead of the GADSS recommendations. This was two years after Qatar Airways said it would become the first airline to adopt the new technology and committed to extensively help in beta testing and validation.

SITAONAIR is also laying claim to leading the the way in preparing airlines to meet this major milestone in aviation safety. Its AIRCOM FlightTracker software system also guarantees regular flight position updates without requiring any new avionics or modifications to aircraft.

It too gathers data from multiple global sources – including FlightAware’s Firehose data feed , something it says ‘bridges gaps between air navigation services provider tracking’ to offer 100 per cent global flight tracking with position updates at least once-per-minute.

“In incorporating this space-based ADS-B data, SITAONAIR’s enhanced FlightTracker gives airlines the tools to receive the precise position, speed and altitude of their airborne fleet anywhere in the world – even over oceans and polar regions. They are also able to exceed the ICAO 15-minute recommendation, in readiness for 2021’s anticipated one-minute recommendation,” said Dominique El Bez of SITAONAIR.

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