CBSN

How can we stop losing airplanes?

global-flight-tracking.png
Rockwell Collins' ARINC MultiLink global flight tracking system merges multiple data sources to track virtually any flight, at any time, anywhere in the world.
Rockwell Collins

Of the many unanswered questions that linger one year after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 on March 8, 2014, one puts the entire air travel industry in the hot seat: In today's high-tech, interconnected world, how can you lose a 240-foot-long jumbo jet?

"The incident highlighted something that is very well known in aviation industry -- the technical limitations of the surveillance that air traffic controllers have to work with," said Cyriel Kronenburg, vice president of sales and marketing for air traffic surveillance company Aireon.

Just as you lose cell phone service when you go from the city into the woods, ground control can lose track of planes as they venture over vast regions of the globe that lack radar towers, including the southern Indian Ocean, where it is believed MH370 went down.

"If you look at the technology of air traffic control, it is safe to say that not a lot has changed since 1940. We are still using radar as the primary means of seeing aircraft," he continued. "It's ironic: As a passenger you often have Wi-Fi onboard. Sometimes you actually have a better connection to the world than the pilot has."

The key to preventing another MH370 is finding a better way to keep an eye on aircraft no matter how far they are from the nearest ground station. That's exactly what Aireon and another company, Rockwell Collins, are trying to do.

Kronenburg admits his company wasn't trying to be altruistic when it started developing a system to track airplanes in near real-time from space. It wanted to sell a service to airlines that would help them save money. But in the wake of the Malaysia Airlines disaster, the plan took on a new level of importance.

Air traffic controllers rely on radar towers on the ground to know a plane's location. But radar can't reach beyond about 200 nautical miles offshore, so planes on long haul trips over oceans or remote areas like Africa and the poles spend a lot of time outside radar range. To ensure aircraft remain at a safe distance from one another, controllers put them on set flight tracks, predetermined routes that keep them at least 80 or 100 miles apart.

"In the North Atlantic, it can take an hour of extra flight time to take tracks, while direct routes between, say, London and Miami would be much faster," Kronenburg told CBS News. It would also save fuel -- and money.

If you could keep an eye on planes as they travel across the three-quarters of the globe that radar can't reach, Aireon executives reckoned, you wouldn't have to rely on inefficient flight tracks.

What if you tracked the planes from space, instead?

Aireon partnered with satellite communications company Iridium, which was planning to replace the 72 satellites in its global network. Aireon essentially leased space on the satellites to hold receivers that could track the location of planes by a GPS-based successor to radar called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), which is being increasingly adopted across the aviation industry. ADS-B will be required in flights to and from the U.S. and Europe beginning in 2020, and is used in an estimated 90 percent of planes that do long-haul trips over the oceans.

When the full satellite constellation is in place, "we will be able to trace every aircraft with ASD-B every eight seconds or so, including over Africa and the polar areas where there's currently no radar coverage," said Kronenburg.

This amounts to a near real-time location tracking of any ASD-B-enabled aircraft. Aireon will sell the data to air traffic control customers via a monthly subscription. But in the case of an emergency such as the loss of contact with MH370, they will also offer it free of charge to any country in the world.

"We will have this global dataset," he said. "It would be irresponsible to have the data and not do anything with it."

Aireon will launch its first satellite later this year and plans to have the complete network in low Earth orbit in 2017.

In the meantime, Rockwell Collins will be watching ASD-B from the ground -- along with radar, an automatic reporting standard called ADS-C, high-frequency data link and any other type of positioning data it can get its hands on.

By pulling together "all the information that is available now and additional sources that may be available soon," explained Dave Poltorak, Rockwell Collins vice president of aviation and network services, they can create "the most complete picture possible" of where any plane is at any time, anywhere in the world.

"In today's global aviation environment, no single source of data is sufficient to track aircraft globally," said Jeff Standerski, the company's senior vice president of information management services. "By merging multiple data sources, many of which airlines already receive, we can automatically select the right combination of data feeds to allow airlines to pinpoint an aircraft's location anywhere in the world, in the most economical way."

Rockwell Collins, which already works with 125 airlines around the world, launched its ARINC MultiLink global flight tracking service Monday with half a dozen corporate customers. Poltorak described it as a "very affordable solution" for big and small airlines alike.

A key part of the system will be the ability to send out alerts the moment a plane ceases to transmit the data it is expected to send.

Part of what confounded air traffic controllers and search-and-rescue responders looking for MH370 was that the plane's beacon, which is supposed to indicate its location, had been mysteriously shut off. A report released Sunday found that the beacon's battery may have expired a full year before the flight left the ground.

"A key piece of information we would normally rely on wasn't available to us because the beacon had been turned off," Simon Hill of Esri, a company that provided Geographic Information System (GIS) services to many of the agencies involved in the search for MH370, told CBS News. "We had one arm tied behind our back ... and had to do complex analysis we wouldn't normally have had to do" to figure out where the plane might have ended up.

If a system like ARINC MultiLink had existed at the time, it could have sent a notification to Malaysia Airlines as soon as the first position report expected from the beacon failed to come through, putting officials on alert right away.

Said David Poltorak, "More information could have made all the difference in the world."

  • Amanda Schupak

    Amanda Schupak is the science and technology editor at CBSNews.com