This Boeing 777, registered as 9M-MRO, disappeared during Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 in 2014 over the Indian Ocean. Photo: Paul Rowbotham
Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established a new, optional licensing process under Part 25 of FCC regulations for small satellites to speed their fielding for commercial applications—a process that is likely to have implications for future commercial aircraft tracking in remote areas.
Satellites governed by the FCC action are those in a constellation of 10 or less with a wet weight of no more than 396 pounds, a maximum on-orbit lifetime of six years, and a mission profile likely to run a low risk of resulting in orbital debris and spectrum interference.
"Many small satellites are launched not as large constellations, but as part of small-scale operations consisting of a single satellite or only a few satellites. This new licensing process is optional and intended to cover these types of smaller-scale operations rather than the large constellations of satellites that are planning to provide broadband service or other satellite systems that require constant spectrum availability," according to the FCC.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement on Aug. 1 that the agency's rules for processing satellite applications have not matched the diversity that has emerged among satellite technology developed in recent years.
"We still require small satellites, which have minimal mass and short orbital lifetimes, to jump through the same regulatory hoops as larger, heavier satellites that may stay in low earth orbit for many years," Pai said. "But there is no reason why a satellite the size of a shoebox, with the life expectancy of a guinea pig, should be regulated the same way as a satellite the size of a school bus that will stay in orbit for centuries."
Communications satellites have typically been the size of a van or small school bus and have weighed up to six tons.
Companies developing nanosatellites, also called CubeSats, believe that they can provide Automatic Dependence Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) capability and aircraft tracking in remote areas that lack ground stations. Such nanosatellites weight less than 22 pounds.
"Unfortunately, in recent years there have been several cases of aircraft that have disappeared without a trace, such as the Air France flight covering the route between Rio de Janeiro and Paris in 2009, or the Malaysia Airlines plane that disappeared in 2014 on the route between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing," according to Alén Space, a CubeSat developer based in Spain.
"In environments close to airports, ADS-B ground systems are very accurate and can provide information about the exact location of the aircraft in a matter of seconds," the company said. "The problem is that in more remote areas there are significant shaded areas where contact with aircraft is lost. Here, nanosatellites can play an important role. The use of small satellites for ADS-B makes it possible to increase air traffic safety, access certain information provided by aircraft sensors, and know the exact location of each aircraft at all times."