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Satellite Brings Aircraft Surveillance to Africa

By Juliet Van Wagenen | January 6, 2016
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[Avionics Today 01-06-2016] African airlines are seeing growth on the horizon, but the continent still operates with relatively sparse air traffic surveillance. With the South African Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP), Air Traffic and Navigation Services (ATNS), recently signing on with Aireon to enable space-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) capabilities across the Johannesburg Flight Information Region (FIR) and the Cape Town FIR, the country could gain access to more complete air traffic surveillance capabilities by 2018.

Rendering of Aireon space-based ADS-B system
Rendering of Aireon space-based ADS-B system. Photo: Aireon

“The implementation of space-based ADS-B will supplement the current terrestrial surveillance network in South Africa in those areas where there is either no coverage or where terrestrial systems are uneconomical to install. Furthermore space-based ADS-B will provide a backup surveillance service in the event of terrestrial surveillance system outages,” ATNS CEO Thabani Mthiyane told Avionics Magazine.

Currently, terrestrial surveillance systems are limited in Africa as a result of socio-economic circumstances in the region and the relatively sparse air traffic that operates across the continent. As of now, Africa operates a small commercial fleet, with just 690 aircraft reported in 2014 according to Boeing’s Current Market Outlook (CMO). The scarcity of aircraft can increase the financial burden each operator must carry when implementing surveillance, limiting the amount of radar technology ANSPs in the region are able to install.

“Operating radar in general is an expensive thing to do and South Africa has a pretty well established surveillance coverage in their airspace. But if you don’t have a lot of flights going through there, that’s where the traffic density kicks in, the cost per flight of operating that infrastructure becomes much higher and in the end those costs are directly linked to the rate that an ANSP charges the airlines,” Cyriel Kronenburg, vice president of aviation services at Aireon, told Avionics Magazine.

Technology and cost aside, the continent has also seen issues in bulking up terrestrial surveillance as radar equipment tends to “disappear” shortly after it is installed.

“There are areas of Africa where even if they were to put up surveillance equipment, it lasts for a very short period of time because the security of those sites is such a big problem that it just disappears,” said Kronenburg. “You put the radar in and then a couple of months later the radar is gone because it is difficult to maintain all of those sites due to the remote nature of the continent.”

Space-based ADS-B, requiring little ground infrastructure, could offer an alternative to the terrestrial equipment that seems to be walking away and “allow surveillance coverage to be rapidly extended across the continent without the necessity of having to fund, develop, operate and maintain numerous green field terrestrial surveillance systems,” said Mthiyane.

This increased surveillance is something the continent will need in order to increase flight efficiencies and streamline operations as the in-service fleet of aircraft grows and air traffic volumes rise. Africa is set to see delivery of 1,170 aircraft between now and 2034 as airlines look to replace aging and obsolete aircraft alongside some anticipated air traffic increases, according to the Boeing CMO.

With the African economy expected to rise at an average 6 percent Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per year, and reports showing growth in Sub-Saharan economies that will match or surpass the global rate, airlines in the region are bulking up their fleets to accommodate, such as Ethiopia Airlines, which announced plans to double its fleet size in August 2015. While Ethiopia does not fall under the South African FIR, both Mthiyane and Kronenburg believe other countries across Africa will “follow suit” and sign on to enable space-based ADS-B in coming years so as to improve flight operations across the continent.

“The provision of [space-based ADS-B] will improve aviation safety and operational efficiency for aircraft operators,” said Mthiyane. “The outcome will be improved conflict detection and resolution, more efficient routes, improved aircraft operating efficiencies, reductions in flight times and fuel burn with lower greenhouse gas emissions over the duration of flights. It will also create an environment where standardized operating procedures that transcend national boundaries can be introduced at a regional level and that allows for training and development of ANSP personnel in new operational concepts and technologies.”

The issue of avionics equipage to access the ADS-B surveillance still stands, however, as equipage rates in the region are still relatively low, according to Kronenburg. The U.S. and European ADS-B equipage mandates, with a Jan. 1, 2020 deadline, will naturally push operators in Africa that touch on those regions to upgrade their aircraft. Similarly, many states in the region have already published ADS-B mandates to require equipage for ADS-B Out transponders, with the hopes that aircraft in the region will be fully equipped when the capability comes online in 2018.

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