A man watches a large screen showing different flights at
the departure hall of Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
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 March 8 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
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 U.S 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
"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
At present, only 10 percent 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.
SENSORS ON SATELLITES
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 percent 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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 $125 million 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 $6 billion to $8 billion.