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IATA: Flight-tracking efforts gather momentum

Malaysia Airlines is introducing a flight-tracking capability this summer, just over a year since the disappearance of its MH370 service to Beijing spurred a proliferation of technologies aimed at ensuring aircraft locations can be permanently monitored.

But while flight-tracking is being marketed as an advancement in safety, the dilemma centred on the capability to disable such systems remains an uncomfortable – and so far unresolved – aspect.

Malaysia Airlines’ implementation of SITA OnAir’s Aircom FlightTracking service follows the loss of MH370 and its 239 occupants in March last year. No trace of the Boeing 777-200ER has been found, despite an extensive ocean search off western Australia.

Navigation organisation Airservices Australia is leading a test of enhanced oceanic flight-tracking – in which Malaysian authorities will participate – aimed at assessing a new 15min minimum surveillance interval agreed during a high-level ICAO gathering in February. This interval will shorten to 5min or less if an aircraft deviates unexpectedly from track by 200ft in altitude or 2nm.

Satellite communications specialist Inmarsat, which uncovered a few brief transmissions that gave the only clue to MH370’s location, is supporting the test. But Airservices chair Angus Houston has cautioned that deliberate interference – already strongly suspected by investigators examining MH370’s loss – could easily undermine flight-tracking efforts if the capability exists to disable on-board communications links, including the ADS-C transmissions that the test will be based on.

“I think we’ve got to be very, very careful,” he said during a briefing on the test, “because you can turn this system off."

“While the system was operating, we’d know exactly where the aircraft was. But if somebody had turned the system off… we’re in the same set of circumstances as we’ve experienced [with MH370].”

IATA’s aircraft tracking task force has been unable to offer reconciliation. “All electrical components on board an aircraft must have the ability to have their power source interrupted in the event of an electrical system malfunction or fire,” it says. “While these types of operational and safety-related events are rare, the fact remains that equipment on board aircraft can be disabled.”

US National Transportation Safety Board investigators recommended earlier this year that aircraft operating extended over-water routes should be fitted with “tamper-resistant” technology to identify its position, down to a radius of 6nm, in the event of a loss.

Malaysia Airlines has already adopted measures to improve situation awareness, halving the position-reporting interval for its 777 fleet to 15min and cutting it to 10min for other types.

Investigators have yet to determine the reasons behind MH370’s disappearance. But the sudden absence of radio communications, secondary radar returns and ADS-B transmissions during an apparent controlled deviation from the aircraft’s assigned course has left the inquiry with few rational explanations outside of deliberate commandeering.

One firm aiming to solve the deactivation problem is US-based InFlight Labs, which is seeking to develop a passive system that detects transponder disengagement or failure and responds with an independent data transmission.

While deliberate deactivation would render tracking systems irrelevant, they would nevertheless potentially serve to speed up the process of locating an accident. Although a 15min position-reporting interval would leave more uncertainty than existed after the loss of Air France flight AF447 in 2009, automatic triggering of shorter intervals, typically 1min, would reduce this uncertainty to a level compatible with the 6nm radius sought by investigators.

SITA OnAir is working on a capability to detect and report unusual situations to complement its tracking initiative. “We are also investigating new aircraft solutions that are independent of aircraft power or systems,” says chief executive Ian Dawkins.

Multiple tracking options have emerged in the wake of MH370’s disappearance. Rockwell Collins has developed ARINC MultiLink, which merges data from several surveillance sources – among them radar, high-frequency datalink, ADS-B and ADS-C, and ACARS – to give carriers a “comprehensive” and “robust” picture of their fleet, it says. Rockwell adds that its service can detect a loss of position reports or deviation from course.

United Technologies is offering a position-reporting feature tied to its Aircraft Data Management line, which includes its electronic flight-bag systems, while Canadian manufacturer FLYHT’s automated reporting system AFIRS has location capability that also includes flight-data streaming in the event of an abnormal occurrence.

Another Canadian-led initiative, the Aireon partnership, is pursuing a space-based ADS-B capability due to become available in 2017. This, it says, will provide global tracking information.

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