ATM Modernization, Commercial, Embedded Avionics

ICAO Makes Progress on Improving Global Flight Tracking

By Woodrow Bellamy III  | March 16, 2016
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[Avionics Today 03-16-2016] The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has adopted new provisions designed to prevent the loss of commercial aircraft position reporting when an aircraft is experiencing distress or flying in remote airspace with no radar coverage. An announcement released by ICAO last week outlines the new provisions as amendments to Annex 6 of the Chicago Convention, which originally established ICAO as a specialized agency for the United Nations nearly 70 years ago. 
International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) headquarters. Photo: ICAO.
ICAO’s adoption of the new provisions were announced on the two-year anniversary of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 incident, in which a Boeing 777 operated by the Asia-Pacific carrier disappeared from radar shortly after taking off from Kuala Lumpur. ICAO will adopt the three new amendments to Annex 6 of the Chicago Convention between now and 2021, and include the following operational requirements for commercially operated aircraft:
1. A requirement for aircraft to carry autonomous distress tracking devices, which can autonomously transmit location information at least once every minute in distress circumstances. 
2. The requirement for aircraft to be equipped with a means to have flight recorder data recovered and made available in a timely manner. 
3. Extending the duration of cockpit voice recordings to 25 hours so they cover all phases of flight for all types of operations. 
The organization has derived the provisions from ongoing discussions, meetings and conferences held as part of the ad-hoc working group ICAO assembled following the disappearance of MH370. In September 2015, ICAO published its Normal Aircraft Tracking Implementation Initiative (NATII) report regarding its latest research and development toward the creation of the Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS) concept of operations, which is what the agency ultimately wants to create moving forward in order to prevent an incident similar to MH370. 
Rather than requiring aircraft upgrades as part of the provisions, ICAO has focused on ensuring that the requirement for aircraft to have the ability to produce position reports every minute while under distress are performance-based and can be achieved using existing or emerging technologies. 
A number of avionics manufacturers have products either currently flying or in development that can meet the provisions ICAO has laid out. For example, in 2015 SITA OnAir introduced its Aircom Flight Tracker solution, to provide access to Air Traffic Control (ATC)-like tracking data. Aircom is a layer of software that is compatible with SITA’s existing Aircom Server Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) message handling system, which is currently used by more than 90 airlines globally, including Malaysia Airlines. According to SITA OnAir, the ground-based software upgrade allows airlines to follow aircraft positions and identify any unexpected deviations or gaps in position reports, however the company has not explicitly stated that Aircom has the capability to meet the one-minute distress-tracking requirement. 
Canadian avionics manufacturer Flyht Aerospace’s Automated Flight Information Reporting System (AFIRS) 228 global communication system, while costly, has the ability to recognize when an aircraft is in distress and immediately start streaming Flight Data Recorder (FDR) information in real time to an airline’s ground operations team. Canada-based airline First Air is currently using that solution on its fleet of Boeing 737s, 767s and ATR aircraft.  
Thompson Aerospace is currently awaiting a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) for its 1Net Secure Aircraft Tracking (SATM) module, which its website describes as a “low cost, low eight Line Replaceable Unit (LRU) designed to meet the aircraft tracking requirements provided by the ICAO.”
Mark Thompson, CEO of Thompson Aerospace, told Avionics Magazine that ICAO’s recently announced amendments to the Chicago Convention will become the industry standard for flight tracking. 
“The recommendations made [by ICAO] are going to be rules. The only item [ICAO is] looking at is the electable versus real time Flight Data Recorder,” Thompson said. “Our solution will have an STC in 60 days and will be the only solution that meets all the recommendations, as we can do some FDR data items in real-time, but not all of them.” 
Thompson also noted that the validation of the flight data that is being tracked is one aspect of ICAO’s effort to improve global flight tracking that a lot of the industry has not yet focused on.

“The major avionics suppliers are still just focused on the first requirement: 15-minute reporting. This is not going to be acceptable for very long,” said Thompson. “The one item very few people are talking about, and will be a rule also, is the data that will require validation. We have put digital signatures on each data element, and use a PKI-type solution in hardware to provide a means to meet the RTCA security requirements that were released over a year ago. Validation of the data is going to be the next big item, and while tracking is important, without validation, you have no assurance that you are tracking the correct item.” 

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