Knowing a plane’s location is essential; how often a plane’s location needs to be updated is the question.
Ever since the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 early last year – and compounded by the crashing of AirAsia flight QZ8501 in January – the debate has grown about whether commercial airliners should be using satellite and other connections to transmit their position every 15 minutes. At present, radar is used to track aircraft location but planes crossing oceans and far from land or flying across remote parts of Asia or Africa are out of radar contact and their position becomes unknown apart from when it is reported by the crew.
“The technology is there to update speed, altitude and location several times an hour. It’s just a matter of having the will to do it which, in large measure, comes down to cost,” says ATDI technical director Nick Kirkman. “But, clearly, there are advantages to constant communication. When the Malaysian plane came down, it was literally half the Indian Ocean that had to be searched. If the aircraft had been updating its position every 15 minutes, the search area would have been reduced to a couple of hundred square miles. Plus, with regular updating you would get an early warning of problems. If a plane missed its scheduled reporting time, you would know very quickly something may be wrong.”
This constant communication could be achieved by connection via chains of LTE ground stations (some of which would have to be ship-borne) or by satellite.
“It becomes a case of throughput,” Nick says. “Many airlines are now proposing to give their users wi-fi so why not use the wi-fi carrier to send updated position. Altitude and position information is a very small packet of data so the cost would be minimal.”
The higher cost may actually be psychological. Airlines are reluctant to introduce new safety measures unless there is a proven need for them because it makes potential customers feel that previous systems may have been inadequate and that the airline companies may have been too casual previously. To counter this, airlines regularly point out that flying is already the safest way to travel.
“It will take new law to make it happen if it is ever going to happen,” Nick states.