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MH370: The Issue of Global Tracking

Bangalore. The MH 370 disappearance appears destined to become chronicled on infotainment channels as an unexplained mystery. The flight (renumbered since then to MH 318) took off on March 8 this year at 00:41 hours (local time) from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing. The last message received from the onboard Aircraft Communications Addressing & Reporting System (ACARS) was sent out at 01:07 hrs when the flight was close to the east coast of Malaysia; the next message, which should have come at 01:37 hrs never came.

Sebang ATC (just outside Kuala Lumpur) identified the flight by tracking its transponder which squawked its unique code 2157 while reporting its altitude, speed and heading, and informed the crew that the flight was being transferred to Ho Chi Minh radar control as it neared Vietnamese airspace; the first officer, Fariq acknowledged at 01:19 hrs with the words “All right. Good night.” At 01:20:43 hrs, the flight’s transponder stopped responding and all subsequent efforts to raise the flight on radio were futile.

At 08:11 hrs, seven and a half hours after takeoff, an Inmarsat satellite identified a series of fleeting “pings” between MH 370 and a satellite over the Indian Ocean. Seven signals, transmitted at one-hour intervals (the last one at 08:11 hrs), provided valuable inputs identifying the source as MH 370, but not giving any clue on the position of the aircraft at the time of transmitting the information. Attempts to deduce positional data using simple trigonometry have so far not resulted in a successful breakthrough on the current location of MH 370’s remains.

Safety Aspects

As is usual with any such tragedy, there have been reactive suggestions on enhancing safety in the air. The requirement of shoring up primary and secondary radar surveillance infrastructure in the region to keep up with the growth in civil aviation is one such thought, especially with ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) reportedly aiming for an ‘Open Sky” policy very soon (with expected increase in air traffic in the region).

The other is the need for continuous coverage of civil aircraft by automatic means, especially over large expanses of ocean. Technology for that exists but will add to airlines’ operational costs. (Please see accompanying story).

There is uncertainty over the flight path followed by MH 370 subsequent to its disappearance from radar as its black box is yet to be recovered (the black box from Air France 447 took two years to be recovered from the ocean floor). That uncertainty has produced a restive impetus from civil aviation stakeholders towards real time flight tracking so that if a repeat of MH 370 does take place, there is no possibility of a situation wherein a civil airliner’s flight path cannot be recreated without any doubt (at least until its impact with a land or a sea surface).
UN Initiative

In May this year, UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) said its governing council had agreed that, following the disappearance of flight MH370, global tracking of aircraft was needed and that it was convinced that the industry supported that view.

According to ICAO, the meeting established a framework for industry contributions through an Aircraft Tracking Task Force (ATTF), to be coordinated by IATA and to help address the near-term needs for flight tracking. ATTF was tasked to come out with draft options in September and present them to ICAO Board, which is expected to view the options and deliver a Concept of Operations (Conops) to the ICAO High Level Safety Conference in Montreal in February 2015. While ICAO hopes that the industry would voluntarily begin tracking more aircraft, it has given no firm timeline for when binding standards would be put into place.

Mandating standards is one side of the coin while the other is affordable technology needed to track aircraft in real time.

Technological Solutions

ICAO organised a meeting of experts in Montreal in May this year to discuss the technological options; a worldwide framework was also part of the agenda. Twenty-two companies, including Globalstar and Rockwell Collins, responded to the call. Honeywell and Raytheon are also working in that direction.

The proposals discussed included airlines sharing tracking data and getting free access to a range of leading edge technologies to prevent any more planes being lost without a trace. Recording and transmission of basic data such as an aircraft’s position, altitude, speed and course via satellite was also discussed. Innovations considered included real-time tracking of aircraft by satellite and cloud storage of “black box” data and other innovations. “The responses received so far to the ICAO questionnaire showed that there are existing commercial off-the-shelf solutions providing global coverage for hardware costs under $100,000,” according to ICAO.

British satellite operator Inmarsat has also offered a basic tracking service to all of the world’s passenger airlines free of charge. Inmarsat, which has played a role in the search for the missing plane, said the service would allow a plane to determine its location using Global Positioning System GPS and send that data over Inmarsat’s global network at 15-minute intervals. It may be mentioned here that, while GPS is commonplace in cars and mobile phones, the international air traffic control network is almost entirely based on radar.

Notably, electronic pings from Inmarsat equipment on the lost plane led investigators to search for wreckage in the Indian Ocean.

Inmarsat now hopes to offer a “black box in the sky” service under which a plane that deviates off course – which is believed to be the case with flight MH370 – could transmit historic and real-time information from its flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder. It is to be seen how the Inmarsats offer finds place in the regulatory framework that emerges as a result of ATTF’s endeavours.

Interestingly, at the ICAO meeting in May, the Russian State Research Institute of Aviation Systems presented a paper which strongly endorsed the NavCanada/Iridium consortium’s Aireon project which plans to place space-based equivalents of the FAA’s current ADS-B ground stations on board Iridium Next’s 66 cross-linked, earth-orbiting satellites. Aireon is intended to cover the world, pole to pole, by 2020 and the satellite-based ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast) stations would provide seamless all-altitude surveillance, with little or no modification necessary to ADS-B units installed in aircraft.

Indian Reaction

On May 5 this year, India’s Director General Civil Aviation (DGCA) issued an Air Safety Circular (No 4 of 2014) asking air transport operators to use onboard ACARS/ADS-B for continuous aircraft tracking and to ensure their serviceability before every departure. However, this circular was not a holistic solution to the problem and seemed to be dictated more by the compulsion of showing some “action taken”.

Its stated objective is “to clearly state the policy and procedures of ‘Flight Following’ on real time basis by all Indian scheduled/non-scheduled operators”. However, it lacks requisite technical details, which should normally have rendered the Circular a comprehensive and practicable one.

For example, Para 3.1.e of the Circular states that, ‘Areas where there is no coverage of ACARS/ADS-B, operator should devise a procedure for effective tracking of the aircraft”. It also leaves a doubt in the reader’s mind about when regulations related to real-time tracking of planes from departure to arrival, would be put into practice in India. No date of implementation is defined in the Circular, possibly because of the fact that the ATTF’s recommendations are yet to be presented to ICAO Board.

Come February 2015, the Conops presented to ICAO will make available a concept which may not be the framework for a technical specification reducible to a mandate but will set the agenda for moving in the right direction – that of providing a performance based standard. In any case, the staff work required to produce a new ICAO standard takes two to three years, but hopefully that time can be reduced.

Meanwhile, operators are moving towards real time tracking in their own ways and Inmarsat’s offer could be a key empowering factor.

Nonetheless, MH370 has noticeably changed perceptions about global aircraft tracking which is no longer considered a ‘maybe’ but a ‘must’.

US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) are focusing on ensuring that changes to existing systems are required to make it well nigh impossible to deactivate onboard systems that assist in locating an aircraft.

Understandably, besides the costs, the steps would also involve increased surveillance within the aircraft, particularly the cockpit, and may not be liked by the crews. But safety, including that of the crew, is paramount and that is what ICAO and its members will have to keep in mind.