New better-than-radar technology will boost aircraft tracking

A Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777

As aircraft from more than a dozen countries continue to search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, technology already being rolled out in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere could prevent a recurrence of a “lost” jet airliner.

Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) technology promises more detailed tracking of planes than radar, even over water when planes are outside the scope of traditional radar. The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has mandated that all commercial aircraft in the U.S. be equipped with ADS-B  by 2020 — many newer planes already have it — and has deployed more than 600 ADS-B enabled ground stations nationwide.  But it takes time to retrofit existing gear and to build infrastructure, and ADS-B is still wending its way through the certification — a process some ADS-B  proponents hope will now be speeded up.

And some companies, including Globalstar, are pushing for adoption of “space-based” ADS-B which would send the signal up  — to a satellite network — as well as down, for continuous global monitoring of planes regardless of location.

“There is no way a Boeing 777 should be able to go missing in this day and age,” said Skip Nelson, CEO of Anchorage-based ADS-B Technologies. His company has developed technology called ALAS or the ADS-B Link Augmentation System. With ALAS, the ADS-B signal is basically copied and forwarded to a satellite system so that an airliner would be visible over water, mountainous terrain, or other places where there are no ADS-B ground antennas.

Radar bounces energy off a plane and interprets the return to determine basic information about the aircraft. With ADS-B, the plane has a transceiver or transponder that gets global navigation or GPS position data and combines it with the plane’s side number, airline, heading, altitude, and airspeed,” he said. In the future ADS-B equipped jets would be signaling data to a set of ground stations — and to other planes — throughout their journeys.

“In the case of the Malaysian Airlines jet,  we would have known that it was MA 370, a Boeing 777 and the ADS-B unit on the plane would be giving someone its information within 30 meters every second,” he said. ADS-B makes the plane “an active participant yelling its position to ground stations.”

A simple, graphical primer in how ADS-B works from ADS-B Technologies.

A simple, graphical primer in how ADS-B works from ADS-B Technologies.

Ah yes. Ground stations  — there can’t be many of them in the open ocean, right? Well, Globalstar says it could provide coverage worldwide with additional ground stations, each of which can cover a million square miles, according to Barbee Ponder, general counsel and VP of regulatory affairs for Globalstar.  ADS-B Technologies utilizes Globalstar for its work.

As Kevin Fitchard has written,  Globalstar and Iridium are pushing their respective satellite networks for use as consumer hotspots and now for air traffic control.

Aireon, a joint venture of Iridium Communications, and civil aviation bodies in Canada, Italy, Ireland and Denmark are also aboard the ADS-B bandwagon and will use Iridium’s satellite network and ground stations. Over open oceans, Aireon’s service will “piggy back” on aircraft transponders in the area to extend coverage in remote areas, said Don Thoma, Aireon CEO.

One issue in dispute following Malaysia 370’s disappearance is the cost of equipping planes with this gear, and here estimates vary. Most published reports have put the cost at a rather nebulous several hundred thousand dollars per plane, but some disagree. Barbee said some planes can be retrofitted for $10,000 to $15,000 per plane for on-board gear, not including cost of the service. Aireon’s Thoma said the price of new gear runs to $350,000 to $500,000 per aircraft. And Nelson said his company’s ALAS system adds 10 percent to 15 percent to the cost of an existing ADS-B avionics system. For planes that are not ADS-B equipped, it could be a $100,000 to $250,000 to install either Globalstar or Aireon’s systems.

In any case, Nelson said,  it’s all relative.”It can cost $10 million to $20 million to build a radar installation. With ADS-B, we get the same information at one-twentieth the cost,” he said. In his view, ADS-B provides better, more detailed plane tracking, which means planes can be more closely spaced on takeoff and landing and routing can be better. That could mean huge fuel cost savings.

And, while we’re talking cost, how much is this multi-nation search over vast expanses of the ocean costing? No one’s saying.

For more on ADS-B, check out this FAA video.


This story was updated at 11:30 a.m. PDT with additional pricing information.

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