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Susan Smith
Susan Smith
Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 – Looking to the Future, Aircraft Tracking with Space-Based Satellites

April 20th, 2017 by Susan Smith

One of the biggest mysteries that still remains unsolved is what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, that took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport on March 8, 2014, just after midnight local time.

The flight should have landed safely in Beijing, and yet it vanished somewhere over the Indian Ocean, with pieces of wreckage strewn as far as India and retrieved long afterward. The disappearance spawned a search spanning years and cost millions of dollars, and still remains a mystery. The hull of the plane has never been recovered.

This week, Malaysia Airlines announced it is the first airline to begin tracking all its aircraft with space-based satellites. Three companies partnering to provide this service include Aireon, FlightAware and SITAOnAir, who jointly pronounced the technology will allow the airline to have “minute-by-minute, 100% global, flight-tracking data” for all flights. Under the agreement, all Malaysia Airlines aircraft will gain access to minute-by-minute global flight tracking data delivered by Sitaonair’s Aircom FlightTracker.

It would seem that with the level of technology and science available that this type of tragedy would be preventable or at least the mystery as to why it happened solved in 2014. However, minute-by-minute space-based satellite data may be able to prevent such catastrophic events in the future and at less cost than other tracking options.

FlightAware founder and chief executive Daniel Baker stated in a video: “For the first time ever, airlines will be able to track their airplanes even in places that aren’t served by current satellite constellations – and it doesn’t matter if they’re flying over the ocean, if it’s over the desert, if it’s over the North Pole: We’ll know where the plane is.”

The system enhances the Aircom FlightTracker by Aireon’s space-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) data to the existing data from FlightAware’s global sources, complementing active Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP) Future Air Navigation System (FANS) activity data, according to AIN Online.

By incorporating the data, Malaysia Airlines’ aircraft operations center will receive real-time position updates of its airborne fleet globally. Aireon’s space-based ADS-B data will also resolve any existing data feed coverage gaps that remain, particularly over oceanic and remote airspace, where no surveillance currently exists.

The service requires no new avionics or aircraft modifications.

“With the addition of the Aireon data, via FlightAware, to Sitaonair’s Aircom FlightTracker, combined with our active monitoring and automated alerting capabilities, Malaysia Airlines will be at the cutting edge of real-time flight-tracking technology,” said Sitaonair’s Aircom portfolio director, Paul Gibson. “With access to up-to-the-minute reporting, Malaysia Airlines will know the location, heading, speed and altitude of all aircraft in its fleet, at all times, and be alerted to any exceptions.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was the object of a multinational search for wreckage over 46,000 square miles of the Indian Ocean. The search cost over $150 million and was called off just this January, 2017, after it was concluded that there was insufficient evidence gathered as to where or why the plane had crashed. A few months after this tragedy, another Malaysia Airlines aircraft, Flight 17, was shot down by a missile over eastern Ukraine, while traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Killed in the crash were all 283 passengers, including many children.

Complicating matters for Flight 370 was the fact that the transponder stopped working so there was no contact with the aircraft at all. Investigators don’t know whether the transponder was tampered with or simply failed. This left a large window of time in which the plane was untraceable.

With the service offered by Aireon, which was in development long before the Flight 370 tragedy, space-based flight tracking signal the moment the beacon from the transponder was turned off, and know exactly where that occurred. “Then you can pinpoint where to begin searching,” said Aireon chief executive Don Thoma.

Other advantages of Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) technology is that planes could fly better routes more directly from Point A to Point B, which would save time, money and reduce carbon emissions.

In preparation, the first 10 Iridium NEXT satellites carrying the Aireon ADS-B hosted payload launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket January 14, 2017. 66 operational low-earth-orbit satellites to provide global coverage will comprise the constellation. Aireon expects its service to go into operation next year, once the Iridium NEXT satellite constellation has been completed. The service will also provide air navigation service providers with global aircraft surveillance capability and enable more efficient flight paths.

The Federal Aviation Administration is embracing real-time ADS-B for air traffic control and dropping radar, and by 2020, ADS-B equipment will be required in planes to fly in most controlled airspace. Other aviation agencies worldwide are exploring this same approach.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) was galvanized after the Malaysia Airlines tragedy, into adopting new regulations that among other mandates, required any aircraft that is in trouble to report its location to air traffic control every minute automatically. According to ICAO, the new rules will take effect by 2021.

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Categories: ADS-B, aircraft tracking, analytics, Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast, Big Data, cloud, data, emergency response, flight paths, geospatial, GIS, global aircraft surveillance, government, GPS, Iridium NEXTsatellites, LBS, lidar, location based sensor fusion, location based services, location intelligence, satellite based tracking, satellite imagery, sensors, space-based flight tracking

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