MH370 puts new satellite sensors in spotlight

2014-03-19 22:03
Vietnamese Air Force Colonel Pham Minh Tuan uses binoculars on board a flying aircraft during a mission to search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the Gulf of Thailand. (File, AP)

Vietnamese Air Force Colonel Pham Minh Tuan uses binoculars on board a flying aircraft during a mission to search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the Gulf of Thailand. (File, AP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Frankfurt - The unexplained fate of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has thrown the spotlight on some satellite technologies that will make it easier in future for authorities to track and communicate with aircraft over water and uninhabited areas.

The plane vanished from radar screens on 8 March with 239 people aboard. Investigators believe it most likely flew into the southern Indian Ocean.

Already, new systems are being developed by European and North American teams to allow more accurate plotting of location and flight paths. These would use satellite-based sensors rather than radars to pick up signals containing automated location and velocity data sent every second from aircraft.

Currently, information on a plane's location can be picked up by ground-based radar, which loses coverage over oceans or remote areas, or it can be combined with optional on-board satellite communications tools that require pilot actions and that airlines, many under budget constraints, must pay for.

While automated signals giving an aircraft's location could still be switched off, as may have happened in the Malaysian case, the new satellite sensors could still aid search and rescue efforts and help airlines save fuel.

Aireon LLC, a joint venture between US satellite operator Iridium, the Canadian air navigation service and three European air traffic control authorities - says it will provide a space-based global air traffic surveillance system beginning in 2018.

The German Aerospace Centre (DLR) is also working on a project with Luxembourg-based satellite firm SES and space electronics group Thales Alenia Germany, a joint venture between Thales and Finmeccanica.

Tony Tyler, head of global aviation association IATA, said the hunt for Flight 370 would drive interest in new solutions.

"It's extraordinary that with all the technology that we've got that an aircraft can disappear like this," he told reporters in London last week. "Certainly I think it will trigger a desire to see how can we avoid this from happening again."

At present, only 10% of the Earth's surface has radar infrastructure, leaving huge gaps in coverage in places like certain regions of Australia, deserts or oceans.

While data transmissions from the separate Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (Acars), a system similar to text messaging, can be sent via VHF radio link or satellite already, these transmissions can leave gaps of 15-30 minutes, and the amount of data sent varies from airline to airline.

"We often just don't know the exact current position of aircraft these days," said Joerg Behrens, divisional head at the German Aerospace Centre.

Tracking in remote areas

New receivers to pick up the Automatic Dependant Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) signals sent out by aircraft every second are therefore being developed by the Aireon and the DLR teams to be placed on board satellites orbiting the earth.

ADS-B equipment is already found on around 60% of aircraft worldwide and the signals broadcast aircraft position, and velocity information that are picked up by radar, air traffic controllers or other aircraft. These are among the signals used by flight tracking websites such as flightradar24.

Most planes are expected to eventually carry the ADS-B equipment. Current regulations in Europe require all airplanes to have it by 2017, with similar requirements in effect for the United States from 2020. In Australia, where radar infrastructure is in short supply, it's mandatory for all aircraft, while India, Brazil and others are also looking at making it a requirement.

Albeit unlikely, the transmission of ADS-B signals could be stopped, such as in the event of an electrical fire, meaning that even if such systems were in place they may not have helped in the Malaysian case.

But Aireon LLC president Don Thoma said it was clear that the new system would help aircraft if they ran into problems over oceans or remote areas.

"We're getting a lot of interest and action from air traffic control organisations that have a vested interest in tracking commercial aircraft in remote areas," Thoma said.

The case has generated more interest in the new technologies for picking up ADS-B signals via satellite and that may help to attract the attention of possible funders, DLR's Behrens said.

Aireon says it will launch the first two tracking sensors on its second-generation Iridium NEXT satellites in the second quarter of 2015 for testing in orbit, ahead of the launch of a global system comprising 66 tracking sensors beginning in 2018.

The DLR is working with SES and Thales Alenia Germany and is currently gathering data from a receiver aboard the ESA Proba-V satellite, which has been in orbit since May last year.

The Aireon project has already signed purchase agreements with Britain, Italy, Denmark, Canada and most recently, Portugal. The company is also in discussions with air traffic control authorities across Asia.

Fuel savings

There is already a service provided by British satellite firm Inmarsat that enables airlines to combine Acars messages with accurate positioning data, typically GPS, and share the data by telecommunications satellites.

GPS satellites provide the location markers that enable a GPS receiver on board a plane to work out its own position. In remote areas without radar coverage, it is up to the aircraft to pass this information on to air traffic control.

To do so when over water or remote areas, aircraft need extra communications equipment to send the information via telecommunications satellites and such systems and the service contracts to enable the transmissions can be expensive.

This makes the ADS-B system attractive because most aircraft are expected to carry it eventually anyway, meaning no need for additional costly equipment. While it's the airlines that pay to install the ADS-B equipment on their planes, the cost of receiving transmissions from the satellite-based sensors in the future could be shared with air traffic control.

Some planes on busy North Atlantic routes have the extra satellite equipment because pilots and air traffic controllers can then share more accurate information on where the plane is.

That means the aircraft can receive a preferred routing at the right altitude that makes the trip more fuel efficient, David Coiley, VP for aeronautics at Inmarsat, said.

"If you don't have it you have to fly lower and get less priority in air-traffic control," he said.

The ADS-B satellite-based sensors could help even more with fuel savings, making it an attractive prospect for airlines which are already under huge cost pressures.

At present, planes have to keep a distance of about 50 nautical miles apart when flying across the North Atlantic. But if space-based satellites were able to track planes second by second, those gaps could be closed, meaning more planes flying and shorter flight paths.

Aireon's Thoma cited estimates of $125m in annual fuel savings in the North Atlantic region for each airline, which would amount to annual aggregate fuel savings across the industry of around $6bn to $8bn.

Read more on:    germany  |  malaysia airlines flight mh370  |  aviation
NEXT ON NEWS24X
SHARE:

Read News24’s Comments Policy

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
2 comments
Add your comment
Comment 0 characters remaining
 

Inside News24

 
/Music
Traffic & Train Alerts
Traffic
Cape Town 18:17 PM
Road name: Wet Weather

RAIN across the Cape Town area - turn on headlights, reduce speeds and drive with care

Hout Bay 09:25 AM
Road name: Chapmans Peak Drive

WEDNESDAYS - STOP / GO controls between 10am and 3pm for Alien Vegetation Clearing - every Wednesday - weather permitting

Jobs in Cape Town [change area]

Property [change area]

Travel - Look, Book, Go!

Magical Massinga

Spend 5 nights at the gorgeous Massinga Beach Lodge in Mozambique and only pay for 4 from R13 220 per person sharing. Includes return flights, accommodation, transfers and romantic turndown. Book now!

Kalahari.com - shop online today

Save up to 30% off top fragrances

Get mind blowing savings on selected fragrances. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Up to 40% off fashion accessories

Save up to 40% on selected handbags, purses, watches, jewellery and more. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Save up to R2000 on top electronics

Get every day mind bowing savings on top electronics. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Save up to 50% on Women’s month treats!

Celebrate the awesome women in your life with awesome treats like beauty products, fashion accessories, bestselling books, electronics and more. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Up to 60% off - clearance sale!

Save up to 60% on appliances, books, electronics, toys, movies and more. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

OLX Free Classifieds [change area]

Samsung Galaxy s4

Mobile, Cell Phones in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 24

Best bargain in big bay

Real Estate, Houses - Apartments for Sale in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

VW Golf 6, 1.6 Trendline (Excellent condition)

Vehicles, Cars in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

Horoscopes
Aquarius
Aquarius

Today is a good day to combine imagination, information and creativity together. Try not to over rationalise things and rather...read more

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.








Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.