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ITU Flight Tracking Spectrum Allocation: Accolades and Concerns

By Juliet Van Wagenen and Caleb Henry | November 13, 2015
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 [Avionics Magazine 11-13-2015] The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has adopted a resolution to allocate radiofrequency spectrum for global flight tracking in civil aviation. The frequency band 1087.7 to 1092.3 MHz has been allocated to the aeronautical “Earth-to-space,” Mobile Satellite Service (MSS) for satellite reception of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) emissions from aircraft transmitters, according to the ITU.

Participants at the WRC-15 conference in Geneva. Photo: ITU
Participants at the WRC-15 conference in Geneva. Photo: ITU

The decision, announced at the 2015 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-15) in Geneva on Nov. 11, is a swift reaction to enable more frequent and vigilant aircraft tracking in the wake of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines’ flight MH370 late last year, which vanished from radar screens during a transoceanic flight and has yet to be fully recovered. While many companies working to provide space-based ADS-B solutions for flight tracking, such as Aireon with Iridium and Globalstar alongside partner ADS-B Technologies, see the quick action from the ITU to allocate spectrum for this purpose as a clear victory, Inmarsat believes it may do little to prevent future aircraft disappearances in the future.

“Now our aviation industry will witness a kind of improved safety measure with respect to flight tracking in real time all over the globe. Before, aircraft flying through the Arctic region could not be tracked; the pilots were on their own. But with this decision, now it will be possible to track every aircraft anywhere via satellite within the globe,” said Festus Yusufu Narai Daudu, chairman of the WRC-15, speaking on the ITU’s decision during a press conference following the announcement.
Houlin Zhao, secretary general of the ITU, also made it clear that the union made an effort alongside industry to collaborate quickly and efficiently to pass the resolution in just one year. As the WRC conference meets every four years, most decisions of this nature take at least four times as long to reach consideration by the ITU, according to Zhao.
He was clear, however, that the ITU can only provide ICAO and the aviation ecosystem with the spectrum to track flights, but that it is up to industry to provide the technology that will make incidents such as MH370 — hopefully — something of the past. Companies such as Aireon, which has launched an effort to use space-based ADS-B to track the location and position of aircraft globally using receivers built into the Iridium Next satellite constellation, are already on the hunt to provide reliable aircraft surveillance.
With Aireon’s air traffic surveillance solution expected to be operational in 2018, the company also has much to gain from the new protection of the 1090 MHz spectrum.
“What this does is check a box, really, it says that the spectrum that we’ll be using is protected on a primary basis for providing safety air traffic surveillance services for air traffic control organizations. This helps our customers get through their regulatory operations on a much quicker basis,” Don Thoma, president and CEO of Aireon, told Avionics Magazine. “This helps us and our customers to work with ICAO to get a global stamp of approval for the regional implementation of this in other parts of the world.”
Aireon is already working with countries such as Australia, Iceland and New Zealand to evaluate the flight tracking solution in oceanic and polar regions. According to Thoma, he company plans to work with major air traffic control organizations, such as the FAA, NATS, Nav Canada, NavAir and the Irish Aviation Authority, as well as others, over the next few years to “prepare and get through the whole operational certification process as well as the regulatory certification” to enable these organizations to use this capability starting in 2018. “But this is a process that will take between now and 2018 to make a reality,” Thoma added.
The ITU’s decision to protect the spectrum is a big win for Aireon on many fronts and analyst Chris Quilty, senior vice president of equity research at Raymond James and Associates, believes it will open a window for the FAA to contract with the company.
“With the endorsement, it is only a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’ the FAA will enter into a data service agreement. Our guess: sometime in the next 12 to 18 months, which should enable Aireon to raise (and pay) a $200 million hosting fee to Iridium,” said Quilty in an research note analyzing the decision.
Globalstar, which has entered into a partnership with company ADS-B Technologies to design, evaluate and deploy flight-tracking technology using space-based ADS-B, sees this as a major benefit as well.
“This is a very positive move for the concept of Global Flight Tracking [GFT]. But, it is not an endorsement for any one GFT solution over another. The ITU hasn’t approved Aireon and Iridium’s concept, they’ve merely approved the use of the 1090 extended squitter in space,” ADS-B Technologies CEO Skip Nelson told Via Satellite/Avionics Magazine.
ADS-B Technologies and Globalstar have been working to evaluate its space-based ADS-B Link Augmentation System (ALAS), and completed a 7,000 nautical mile public flight demonstration of the technology in September 2014. The system has been flying since 2010 and the September flight demonstration proved its ability to deliver a 1090 Extended Squitter (ES) or 978 MHz Universal Access Transceiver (UAT) payload between an aircraft and a Surveillance System Delivery Point (SDP). Unlike Aireon, the system is designed to augment, not replace, ground-based ADS-B technology that is available to aircraft. The ITU’s decision is a win for this company as well and one that both Nelson and Globalstar President and CEO James Monroe see as a positive step forward for global air traffic surveillance.
“We congratulate the delegates on the agreement of additional spectrum in the interest of aviation safety and as we continue to build on 100-plus hours of actual flight tests,” Monroe told Avionics Magazine in an emailed statement.
However, Inmarsat, the company that most closely traced the trajectory of MH370, believes that the emphasis on space-based ADS-B as a solution to similar problems in the future is more of a misnomer. 
“It wouldn’t prevent an MH370,” explained Mary McMillan, Inmarsat Aviation’s vice president of aviation safety and operational services. “MH370, we don’t know what happened, but one of the things that we do know is that all of the communications, all of the navigation equipment was turned off, rendering that aircraft invisible to anything other than primary radar. ADS-B wouldn’t solve it.”
The satellite operator provides ADS-C services, which enables two-way communication to and from aircraft compared to the one-way capability of ADS-B. McMillan said surveillance of more than 90 percent of the world’s aircraft already takes place, including over oceans, using ADS-C, which in addition to location information, also gives information on the mechanical and environmental status of the aircraft. ADS-C was switched off on MH370 as well, which created more of a challenge. Inmarsat was able to provide a clearer, although not complete picture of MH370’s final whereabouts through an active Inmarsat terminal onboard the plane that continued to operate for many hours after contact with the aircraft was lost. 
“Unless we actually enact a regulation that requires us to have a transponder that we can’t shut off — whether it’s ADS-B or ADS-C or secondary surveillance radar — we are not going to be able to see that aircraft for surveillance or for flight tracking purposes,” she said, adding that a real improvement would be better data streaming off of aircraft in flight. Inmarsat has developed technology to stream black box data off of aircraft, but it is relatively new and just coming online now. 
Monroe said Globalstar and ADS-B Technologies have taking steps toward preventing tampering with aviation safety equipment. “Recent improvements to the original design, one of which includes a fail-safe ADS-B backup reporting system that would prevent the disabling of an aircraft’s position reports, further demonstrates the system’s potential for growth and flexibility for many years to come,” he said
Last year Inmarsat voiced support of the ITU’s Plenipotentiary 2014 resolution to expedite the consideration of global flight tracking. McMillan said the satellite operator is more than willing to stand with efforts to improve aviation safety, but does not consider the recent ITU spectrum allocation to be much more than a red herring. 
“Anything that can enhance aviation safety or flight safety, Inmarsat is very supportive of, but my opinion on space based ADS-B is actually a solution in search of a problem,” she said.

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