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Summary:

No more lost planes? ADS-B offers much more accurate tracking of airplanes compared to radar — yes, even over water. It awaits certification but has already been mandated for use in the U.S. by 2020.

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.

  1. You can’t say it’s better than radar since it’s not even close to doing the same thing.
    Anyway this is ridiculous, every life vest should have a personal location beacon ,this is not the 90s.

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    1. they can’t even find the beacons on the black boxes – how they gonna work on a shredded life jacket?

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  2. ADS-B is the exact opposite of radar, it isn’t “better” than radar in the same way that ice cream isn’t “better” than a hamburger. They both fulfill similar roles, but they are not comparable.

    If someone hijacked an ADS-B equipped plane, what’s to stop them from disabling the transmitter? Then you’d be back to radar. Further still, someone could modify the ADS-B transmitter to transmit coordinates that follow the route the plane is supposed to be taking, while the plane goes somewhere else entirely. Because ADS-B is “better” than radar, why would anyone bother checking the radar to make sure it matches up with the ADS-B data?

    ADS-B is good, and it will be useful, but it is not a replacement for radar, and it is not “better.”

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    1. granted the issue of engineering the device so it’s not tamperproof still stands. My understanding of ADS-B vs. radar — limited as it is — is that it provides much tighter location data — within meters — and more accurate data on speed, header etc… than radar…which obviously has its place as well.

      thanks for your comment.

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      1. You’re right, Barb. ADS-B can be described as “better” than radar the same way texting can be described as “better” than communicating with walkie-talkies. Both ADS-B and radar (primary and secondary) provide surveillance – air traffic monitoring. ADS-B was designed specifically to replace our existing radar infrastructure for all the reasons you cite. For security and other reasons, there will always be a need for legacy, “skin paint” radar. But, in the not too distant future, ADS-B will be the primary surveillance technology.

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  3. I’m amazed that so many of the media is jumping on ADS-B as the solution for the loss of Flt. 370. These tracking methods, satellite or transponder, are totally dependent on them being on and not spoofed. That is, the plane needs to provide cooperative information in order to be tracked. Currently, all ADS-B transmitters and Mode C transponders are capable of being disabled in the cockpit (the 9/11 terrorists shut off the mode C transponders so they couldn’t be tracked). ICAO and the FAA would need to mandate a “LoJack” type of avionics that would be functioning all the time and not subject to shut down from the plane. That could be done but at significant retrofit costs.
    The beauty of primary radar is that it can track non-cooperative targets. So another very expensive solution would be to install a space-based radar system all over the world. But I don’t see that happening in my lifetime.

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  4. Darren Gillam Tuesday, April 8, 2014

    Sorry Barb, but this is another company using this unfortunate situation to try and drive its own agenda. MH370 was fitted with ADS-B and made no difference what-so-ever.

    ADS-B has its place, but certainly no replacement for Radar (with possible exception to MSSR), nor can you argue it is better. Certainly it has a higher update rate, around once per second as opposed to every 4-10 seconds depending on the radar configuration – and that is about it. Radar position report can be as accurate – and certainly for far less than $10-20M as you have been advised.

    The issue with ADS-B is it is just as fallible as any other transponder – this is because it is known as a ‘cooperative’ system – meaning the aircraft wishes to be interrogated. But as hinted below, these can easily be disabled – 9/11 taught everyone about this. Further, systems do fail and we also see many ADS-B positions reported many thousand of nautical miles out of actual position.

    The only viable ‘non-cooperative’ technology is Primary Surveillance Radar (PSR) – meaning that it does not matter what happens on an aircraft, it will be detected within its operational range. PSR can be accurate to the same specifications as ADS-B.

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  5. The shipping industry already has something called AIS that does this, funny who they are ahead of aviation.

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  6. Hugo Sumarriba Saturday, April 19, 2014

    I enjoy very much this great news about the NEXGEN ATC thru the MSS 2nd Generation thru Globalstar and Iridium with its respective ALAS and AIREON which in my sense will be better implementation both of them like backup system constellation to complement one to other … The integration of MSS 2nd GEN satellite + GNSS Constellation + ADS-B Technology will improve safe into Air Transportation System thru the NEXTGEN ATC regulated by FAA and ICAO. Anyway,… in case of ALAS… it is primarly need the reboosting of all gateway around the world… and implement the satellite nextwork for ASTERIX CAT21 and CAT33 signal to any airports under each gateway coverage. For instance LRNGW gateway with coverage under territories: Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru and South Pacific sea will be able to feed info position of all aircrafts under its coverage to any airports into it. LRNGW Gateway has already began with the reboosting of it…. because of I would like to be involved on ADS-B ALAS project..

    Regards,

    Hugo Sumarriba
    LRNGW Gateway Manager

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