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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Opinion: Technology to Prevent Flight Disappearance May Already Exist

Woodrow Bellamy III 

[Avionics Today April 24, 2014] Malaysia Airlines’ flight MH370, a Boeing 777-200, has been missing now for 47 days, and while as an aviation journalist I am not in the business of proposing theories about what may or may not have happened, I do stay deeply in touch with aviation technology, and this incident will make a deep impact and impression on the industry. Until the aircraft is located, and the aircraft’s flight data recorder is recovered and analyzed, there will be no way of knowing what happened. But, if anything, what this incident does teach the industry is that there needs to be a better method of tracking aircraft, rather than relying on radar coverage from Air Traffic Control (ATC) or an Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting Systems (ACARS). 

This week I discussed the Malaysia Airlines incident with Skip Nelson, CEO of ADS-B Technologies and a pioneer of space-based ADS-B, as well as Viraf Kapadia, CEO of Star Navigation Systems and creator of a technology that provides real-time aircraft data streaming. I also discussed the issue with briefly with an engineer at Curtiss-Wright, which provides subsystems that power some of the most advanced military and commercial avionics systems in the world.
 
They all essentially said the same thing. They asked how, in 2014, it is possible for an airplane to disappear.
 
Nelson, reacting to the incident itself, said "One of the rules of the game, and one that we adhere to, is we keep our mouth shut when an accident happens. 
 
“You haven't heard anything from us on this. Because that's the honorable thing to do. There are family members related to the passengers that were on that plane, and all they want to know is where their family is — not a bunch of theories about what may have happened or ACARS systems or stuff like that. We as an industry need to learn from this and focus on improving safety," said Nelson.
 
Nelson's Alaska-based ADS-B Technologies is among the companies that have been working on making flying safer for quite some time, even before tragedies put our industry need in the spotlight. Last week during the 2014 AMC | AEEC conference, NAV Canada announced its plans for the initial launch of a space-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) network, which has the potential to greatly improve aircraft tracking, especially over large areas of oceanic airspace.
 
Nelson has been flying aircraft equipped with space-based ADS-B for four years. That's a technology that airlines could equip with right now, taking the existing ADS-B Out transmission from the cockpit and beaming it up to a satellite and relaying that information to ATC in less than 400 milliseconds.  
 
While Nelson firmly stated that he did not believe space-based ADS-B could have prevented the Malaysia Airlines incident, he does believe that the technology can help to improve aircraft tracking in the future. This would be especially true for airplanes traveling in the Asia Pacific region, where many flights must pass through oceanic airspace where radar coverage is nonexistent or ineffective.
 
"Take a country like Peru or Chili, or even China, that does not currently have ADS-B, but may have geography problems with mountains like the Andes in South America, or the Himalayas, that effectively cut western China off from eastern China,” he said.
 
“Now, instead of spending billions of dollars on ground infrastructure, countries like that can immediately go to space-based ADS-B. In China, we think as few as three satellite ground stations could cover the whole country. In Peru, we already have one station, and we're talking to them right now about possible demonstrations down there. In the Pacific, where land-based infrastructure is hard to come by, a satellite station in some place like Tonga and another one on Christmas Island would cover almost the entire link between New Zealand and Hawaii," Nelson added.
 
We will have more in-depth coverage of lessons learned from the Malaysia Airlines MH370 in our July issue, where we will examine how the industry will improve aircraft tracking moving forward with concepts such as streaming flight data via satellite to the ground so that it is available if air traffic controllers lose sight of it. 
 

Next month, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is holding a special meeting involving a task force comprised of government officials and aviation experts from around the world to discuss this issue. Rockwell Collins CEO Kelly Ortberg is among those within the industry who has already expressed interest in joining that task force, and has also noted that the technology already exists to improve tracking. 

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