Real Time Communications Featured Article

Airlines and Regulators Turn to Real Time Flight Tracking

May 15, 2014

The fate of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 has brought the focus back on aviation tracking and safety. The fact that the airline could not be tracked two months after its disappearance raises questions about the tracking systems that are in place. Currently, commercial air transport operators fly over many remote regions around the world, yet there is no mandate for a real time tracking system that will inform the base station about the whereabouts of the flight at any time. This lack of international requirement is dangerous because it will be impossible to locate aircrafts that have disappeared, like the recent MH370.

To prevent another such unfortunate incident, many airlines and airline regulators around the world are working to improve their tracking systems. One such aviation regulator is the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) that oversees the operations of commercial aircrafts in India. This regulator has mandated all airlines that operate in India to install systems that will track airlines in real time. DGCA has ordered all airlines to install either the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) or the Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B) system. This directive is applicable to both passenger and cargo planes.

ACARS is a data link system that transmits messages between the airline system and the ground station at frequent intervals. It is designed to perform many critical functions such as identifying abnormal flight conditions, providing detailed engine reports, generating weather reports based on the location of the aircraft, creating a repair and maintenance plan and offering support for manual typing of emails between the crew and the ground stations. ADS-B, on the other hand, is a cooperative technology used for tracking aircraft where the communication is initiated by the aircraft crew. Airline companies can choose either of the two systems for tracking.

Inmarsat, a U.K. satellite company, also recently proposed a free tracking service for commercial airplanes in the wake of the disappearance of MH370. The tracking service determines a plane’s location, speed, heading and altitude, and then transmits that data over Inmarsat’s global network of satellites every 15 minutes. Inmarsat will also offer an enhanced position reporting facility to support in-flight aircraft separation and a “black box in the cloud” service to stream real time data recordings and cockpit voice recorder information.

This decision by the DGCA to mandate real time tracking in aircrafts is a welcome step as it greatly reduces the uncertainty that comes with flying in remote areas. It is hoped that such real time communications will prevent the disappearance of flights in the future. 

Edited by Rachel Ramsey

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