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Thursday, October 1, 2015

Planning, Positioning, Processing: A Look into Real-Time Aircraft Monitoring

Real-time aircraft monitoring is surfacing to serve the aviation market in a number of ways across the industry, including health monitoring, black box data streaming and flight tracking as airlines look for ways to improve maintenance operations, optimize flight planning and keep tabs on their fleet.

by Juliet Van Wagenen

Systems that enable the ability to monitor the aircraft in real time from the ground are coming to term in ways that can offer operators enormous benefits. With 58 percent of respondents to Avionics Magazine’s 2015 Real-Time Aircraft Monitoring Survey stating that they have the need to acquire real-time aircraft monitoring capabilities, it’s clear these budding systems are popping up on the radar in the aviation community. These systems not only help airlines to reduce costs and improve maintenance schedules and component availability through Aircraft Health Monitoring Systems (AHMS), they also help to improve their ability to monitor and track aircraft in real time — an issue revving up to take center stage in coming years.

Following the disappearance of Air France 447 and, more recently, Malaysia Airlines MH370, the focus is turning to companies bringing systems to market that can deliver aircraft position information and stream data in real time. Companies are developing these technologies over both ground and satellite links to track aircraft with increasing frequency and stream Flight Data Recorder (FDR) data to the ground in an effort to help operators to keep tabs on aircraft at all times.

Outside of flight tracking and black box monitoring, Willie Cecil, director of business development at Teledyne Controls, sees “deeper health monitoring and alerting for aircraft systems and engines and even remote in-flight aircraft troubleshooting,” taking center stage. “The engine manufacturers are crying out for more data to be collected from the engines. They want much, much more data than [Aircraft Communications Reporting and Alert System] ACARS can support. Much of the higher volume data needed can be and is sent post flight today using technologies such as 3-G and Wi-Fi at the gate.”

Health Monitoring

Just under half of respondents to our 2015 Real-Time Aircraft Monitoring Survey noted that improving aircraft maintenance was their largest concern when considering equipping for real-time systems. New real-time data streaming capabilities allow operators to better monitor system health and prepare for a problem should one occur in flight.

“Up to now the health monitoring was mostly done post-flight and on specific equipment, systems or parameters, and on given aircraft or helicopter types,” explains Star Navigation’s CEO Viraf Kapadia. Star aims to change this legacy type of monitoring and improve data transmission and operational efficiencies. The company introduced a system earlier this year aimed at delivering real time global health monitoring for all types of aircraft, as well as helicopters and ground transportation, such as trains. The system, for which Star signed a framework agreement with an undisclosed avionics systems manufacturer this summer, works to collect data from the aircraft through all phases of flight, “from power on of the engines to final stop,” says Kapadia.

“After on-board processing, it triggers the transmission to alert the people on the ground no matter where the aircraft is flying. It uses a state-of-the-art software and hardware combination that works in real time using satellite communications,” Kapadia explains, noting that the company is specifically targeting retrofits on the existing aircraft and helicopter fleets for the product.

The system transmits data through communication satellites or GSM. With this, it aims to offer increased operational efficiency to operators by managing flight data proactively in the areas of fuel management, flight safety and maintenance, according to Kapadia. Should the system trigger a maintenance alert, it can notify ground crews as to the issue and allow them to prepare for the incoming aircraft. “The maintenance specialists were and still are challenged by the ‘unknown’ state of the aircraft until it reaches its destination. Our system proactively informs them about the current state of the aircraft and of its systems, while it is still in the air and allows them to manage their operations proactively,” said Kapadia.

The system is part of a larger Star Airborne Data Service (ADS) platform, which enables analysis of aircraft systems and performance during all phases of flight in real time, complementing and leveraging existing aircraft information systems with enhanced analyzed data output, according to the company’s website. And, according to Kapadia, who notes that Star has been involved in studies, workshops and think tanks regarding real-time aircraft tracking, this type of technology will ultimately find its way onto every aircraft.

“Triggered transmissions of flight data will eventually be mandated. Organizations such as ICAO, IATA, ITU, FAA, NTSB are working on defining that,” he concludes.

Data Streaming

Aircraft surveillance view for air traffic controllers. Photo: NATS
Star isn’t the only company working to make aircraft data streaming a reality. Notably, Canadian company Flyht Aerospace has brought to the market a system that enables not only aircraft health monitoring, but also real-time “black box” data streaming.

“In the event of any emergency, the technology recognizes the problem and then does two things: it sends an alert to the airline to let them know, in no uncertain terms, that there is something wrong with the aircraft and then, if the problem is serious enough, it will start streaming the black box data,” explains Flyht Aerospace President Matt Bradley, who notes that the company began looking into streaming Flight Data Recorder (FDR) information — more commonly known as the aircraft black box — after passenger aircraft Air France 447 was lost in the Atlantic Ocean in June 2009. After the disappearance of the Air France 447 aircraft, minimal transmissions from the aircraft during the emergency meant the aircraft and passengers went unfound for two years.

“Air France 447 goes down, there’s confusion among ATC about which exact tail it is and six hours later they begin to realize there’s a problem. We knew that we had a system that was able to tell someone right away if the plane had spiraled into the ocean and we thought it would have been great information for Air France to have right in their operations control center. We knew that the industry could do better,” says Bradley.

Flyht’s response was the FlyhtStream technology, which can be found in the company’s the Automated Flight Information Reporting System (AFIRS) 228, a global communication system with an Iridium link that offers global flight tracking with enhanced data, such as flight following, engine trending and fuel management.

“The enabling technology is an Iridium satellite box with the ability to store black box data, 429 data and discrete data as well as algorithms that determine distress and abnormal events with specific actions to transmit both alerts and that actual data in the event of an emergency,” says Bradley. “The inputs to the system come from the 429 and 717 databuses as well as an internal GPS, which is capable of streaming any kind of 4-D position data. All of the parameters associated with the black box data can be streamed when an event is triggered. There are also 16 discretes that can be connected to various systems in the aircraft and they can also trigger a streaming event.”

The black box streaming technology is currently flying with Canadian airline First Air on its fleet of Boeing 737, 767 and ATR aircraft. The airline flies routes to small communities in the Canadian arctic, where thin infrastructure, harsh storms and fast-changing weather conditions create a difficult and dangerous flight environment. According to First Air’s Vice President of Flight Operations, Vic Charlebois, the airline equipped with Flyhtstream late last year in order to increase safety, enhance communication and up operational awareness in a difficult operating location.

 Panasonic Avionics mission control center for aircraft tracking. Photo: Panasonic Avionics
“One of the challenges we’ve had historically up in the Arctic where we fly is being able to communicate with our aircraft and specifically know where they were at any particular time, including when they’ve arrived at an airport and departed,” says Charlebois, noting that while the aircraft was en route the airline would have estimates of the aircraft’s location, but wouldn’t have a definitive position. “In order to communicate with the aircraft we would have to try and go through the station agent, who is busy with the passengers, and call him on a VHF radio. We had high frequency radios on board the aircraft, which are longer range, but notoriously unreliable with sunspot activity and the level of the ionosphere, etc. Or we would go through air traffic control and another aircraft in order to talk to the aircraft, which again is time consuming and not reliable.”

The company turned to Flyht’s technology for several reasons: basic aircraft tracking capabilities, enhanced communication and automatic emergency reporting/data streaming. The system provides automatic departure and arrival times to flight operations crews, a huge plus for the airline as each airport typically has one very busy operator who was often delayed when reporting departures or arrivals. It also enables the airline to communicate directly with its responders, which has made a difference to its operations, according to Charlebois.

“If we have an aircraft en route the weather might be marginal but it looks okay to go, and when the aircraft gets airborne, the weather takes a turn for the worst. Now, we can directly call the pilots and can tell them not to bother doing an approach at a tough airport and to continue on to their destination, so we save them all the time, fuel and cost,” says Charlebois.

“Anything going into the black box can be streamed to the ground. It varies with each aircraft type how many parameters that is. It’s just like having a black box on the ground, should something happen to the aircraft you don’t have to find the aircraft in order to understand what happened. You already have what was going on when you lost it,” says Charlebois. This includes the GPS positioning data, meaning that should the aircraft be lost, there will be a very small search area for the aircraft allowing for a faster and more focused search and rescue operation.

While only 4 percent of respondents to our 2015 Real-Time Aircraft Monitoring survey noted black box data streaming as the main driver to equip for aircraft monitoring, the capability has proven invaluable for First Air. According to Charlebois, the system is triggered, on average, once every three weeks. While a pilot has triggered most incidents following an unexpected missed approach, there have also been more urgent events, including an aircraft that experienced an engine failure shortly after taking off. The ground crew was able to provide the pilots with a weather report and Notice to Airmen (NOTAMS) as it returned to the original airport as well as notify ground and maintenance crews to anticipate the aircraft’s return.

“We probably spent over $1 million on 22 aircraft installing [the AFIRS system], but we’ve easily saved that amount of money over the course of the four years we’ve been flying with the system,” Charlebois says. “Just the ability to know where the airplane is and speak to the crew has paid for the system in my opinion. It’s saved us a ton of money in fuel and airtime on the aircraft we didn’t waste whereas before we would have.”

Flight Tracking

Following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines passenger flight MH370 over the Indian Ocean, for which only one small flaperon has still been discovered, ICAO set about defining a set of international aircraft tracking standards. While the organization is still working toward a more comprehensive Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS), recommendations emerging in February set the minimum recommended position reporting capability at 15-minute intervals. With standards on the horizon and the public looking for better tracking onboard aircraft, airlines are beginning to equip with systems that can report within the ICAO standards.

Blue Sky Network’s tracking technology, which operates over Iridium, has been working to enable this type of aircraft position reporting since 2004. The technology can track aircraft through position reporting and is accessed through a cloud-based web portal called Skyrouter, which can track the aircraft and modify the reporting in real time.

“Anything you wanted to do with a two-way method on an aircraft is something you can do through Skyrouter. For example, you can re-parametize the device over the air, meaning that you can change the frequency of position reporting, you can automate take off and landing messages, we have something in excess of 50 different events that you could tell the device to report to you when it occurs,” explains Blue Sky Network CEO Jon Gilbert. The company got its legs in the Gulf of Mexico where rotorcraft flying offshore missions for the Oil and Gas industry were often compromised due to bad weather.

“The people in the Gulf of Mexico did this because they were losing people and they couldn’t get to them fast enough so they thought that maybe if they knew where they were at least they would have the chance to save them,” he said. “I think the drive is safety but what’s precluding airlines from adopting flight tracking is probably cost, but it’s really an illusion how expensive it is. It’s ridiculously cheap. If you report your position every two minutes, it costs you about $5 an hour. I wouldn’t call that a lot of money.”

Companies such as SITA OnAir and Panasonic Avionics have also developed devices to track aircraft within the ICAO recommendations tailored toward the commercial air transport market. SITA OnAir’s Aircom Flight Tracker combines multiple data sources already on board the aircraft, such as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), and the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Contract (ADS-C) application of the Future Air Navigation System (FANS) that airlines use for oceanic ATC communications as well as air traffic control radar data, terrestrial and satellite feeds, and an airline’s flight plans in order to provide real-time aircraft position monitoring over remote and oceanic regions.

“By adding ADS-B, ADS-C, FANS, ACARS position reporting and with air traffic control, the system gives you a much clearer, precise picture of where the aircraft actually is. That helps you not only with the location of the aircraft and the ability to know where it is at any time, but it also helps an operator to manage flight paths for efficiencies and weather avoidance,” explains SITA OnAir Commercial Director for the Americas, Larry Thomas. Several airlines, including Malaysia Airlines, have already contracted to equip with the solution.

Panasonic Avionics Flightlink system delivers similar tracking capabilities, although the system works via satellite, through an Iridium link, to also enable voice and data communications as well as deliver streaming weather uplink and downlink capabilities. The weather sensor, known as Tropospheric Airborne Meteorological Data Reporting (TAMDAR), collects weather parameters such as humidity and wind and streams the data in real time to Panasonic’s weather operations center. “One of the key drivers on the flight tracking aspect of Flightlink is kind of a bi-product of the weather part,” explains Jeff Rex, director at Panasonic Avionics. “The system has its own autonomous GPS. So while it can grab information from the aircraft data buses, it also has its own independent GPS to validate, augment or provide an alternate input to that position tracking report. Autonomous GPS is one of those areas ICAO is looking into as an additional aspect for its tracking recommendations.”

Juliet Van Wagenenis the assistant editor for Avionics Magazine


As data monitoring and flight tracking begin to enter the mainstream market there are still several challenges in terms of the “pipes” — satcom or ground links — that transmit data.

“Today the limitation is that aircraft data from Aircraft Condition Monitoring Systems (ACMS) is only transmitted in-flight using ACARS. The ACARS links used by the flight decks started out at 2.4 Kbps and many still send ACARS data at this rate; now many use the 31.5 Kbps VDL2 link and the future promises that 0.5 Mbps is coming with SwiftBroadband and possibly even more later in the decade with Iridium NEXT. All of the new high bandwidth, low cost links to the aircraft are going to the cabin to serve the passengers, not the flight deck,” says Teledyne’s Cecil.

While the high bandwidth links are currently working to service passenger demand, it’s possible there is an easy remedy for the issue to enable cheaper, more accessible real-time monitoring.

“The way to overcome the limitations of today I see quite simply as enabling the ACMS computer to send data via the low-cost and high-bandwidth links increasingly being installed in the cabin,” he adds.


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