Tracking Planes Over the Ocean Is About to Get Easier

New flight-tracking tech still won't tell us where a plane like Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went down, but we will know exactly where it lost power.
November 24, 2015, 7:00pm

Canadian researchers are preparing for an orbital launch in 2016 that they say will serve as one of the first real tests of a major new satellite-based flight tracking technology.

Speaking at this year's annual meeting of the Canadian Space Society, Royal Military College of Canada (RMCC) researcher Dr. Ron Vincent said that the tracking tech would have shown "not where [Malaysia Airlines Flight 370] went down, but at least exactly where she lost power."

A company called Aireon is also planning to launch a constellation of satellites equipped with the technology beginning next year.

Currently, aircraft automatically broadcast their location to ground-based receivers using a technology called Automatic Dependent Surveillance broadcast (ADS-b). It's one of the key technologies that enables planes to safely fly close to one another in populated areas. At sea however, or over large undeveloped areas like Canada's North, ground-based tracking is often impossible, and planes can slip out of active surveillance for long periods of time.

Read More link: When Will Canada Get a Spaceport? When It Has More Things to Launch

To compensate, a method for transmitting ADS-b signals to satellites overhead, rather than ground-based receiving stations, has been proposed.

Dr. Vincent's team has been researching solutions to some of the anticipated problems posed by the constant transmission of ADS-b signals between the Earth's surface and Low Earth Orbit. For example, in congested airspace—such as the corridor between New York and Washington—overlapping transmissions can interfere with one another and reduce the overall number of readable ADS-b signals that reach satellite-based receivers.

They conducted the first stratospheric test of tech technology in 2011 via high-altitude balloons, under the name Flying Laboratory for the Observation of ADS-B Transmissions, or FLOAT. Though governments and corporations were already considering large space-based ADS-b plans at that point, the FLOAT experiments were the first real demonstrations outside of simulations of how space-based ADS-b would work.

The signal strengths achieved in the FLOAT experiments have been encouraging, and the RMCC team's congestion study found that, with proper signal processing, no plane should spend more than 3.7 seconds out of contact, even over the ocean. That's vastly superior to the 10 or so minute gaps over the open ocean today, and even below the maximum 15 seconds currently enforced within air-traffic control zones.

Next year, RMCC researchers will continue their work by launching a prototype satellite ADS-b receiver of their own design as a secondary payload on the CanX-7 mission. It will be one of the first tests conducted at real orbital altitude.

Commercial tests will also be conducted next year by a company called Aireon, a partnership between Nav Canada, which runs the country's civil air navigation system, and the US satellite company Iridium. ADS-b receivers will be hosted on the 66 satellite Iridium NEXT constellation, the first of which will be launched next year. It could provide coverage to virtually the entire surface of the Earth, which Aireon plans to offer free of charge in emergency situations.

If successful, not only could Aireon's service make the skies safer, and downed planes easier to find, but it will also enable airlines to lower the minimum separation between aircraft in busy trans-oceanic corridors from to 80 nautical miles to 15, according to the Financial Post. Today's arduous trans-Atlantic flights could then take quicker, more fuel-efficient routes, plot more dynamic paths around rough weather, and even fly in higher volume during the times of day people actually want to travel.

The UN World Radiocommunication Conference recently chose a segment of the radio spectrum to reserve for space-based ADS-b signals. This should pave the way for the Iridium-based receivers to begin monitoring air traffic and improving flight paths as early as 2018.