Airliners’ equipment can already enable worldwide monitoring at all times, but not all the standards needed are here yet, writes Chris Kjelgaard.

An in-flight entertainment (IFE) system offering broadband satellite communications could be used to track an aircraft with slight modifications, as could the datalink airlines use to transmit engine performance data to maintenance departments.

“Many airlines already have the capability in their aircraft, but they don’t necessarily use it,” says IATA Director Flight Operations, Atholl Buchan. “There are some flight-tracking systems already—more in the cargo-carrying industry, for monitoring where all their cargoes are,” adds NAV CANADA’s Vice President Operations, Rob Thurgur.

So there are systems in place that can help airlines and authorities track aircraft worldwide, following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on 8 March 2014. But, this event has galvanized the air transport industry to do more to track aircraft with a particular emphasis over oceanic and remote continental areas.

Flight MH370 was lost over the Indian Ocean and authorities in that region have acted swiftly, moving ahead of an industry wide solution. The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) requires all six Singapore-based carriers to be able, by 1 July 2016, to track all their aircraft in normal flight every 15 minutes.

From 8 November 2018, CAAS will require all position reporting by those airlines’ aircraft to be automated. “We are supportive of the efforts to improve flight tracking capabilities,” says Singapore Airlines’ Acting Senior Vice-President Flight Operations, Captain C.E. Quay.

The Malaysian Government required Malaysia Airlines to provide a 15-minute tracking standard for all of its aircraft within a year of MH370. By 6 March 2015, Malaysia Airlines had complied with this requirement.

Putting in place the worldwide industry solution is taking a little longer, given the variety of aircraft equipage and types of operations. Two years on, ICAO has a tracking standard. It does not mandate that operators use a specific technology to achieve a 15-minute tracking capability.

Previously, the transpacific Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Contract (ADS-C) position-reporting requirement had been 30 minutes. By consensus, this has now been reduced to 14 minutes to comply with the new requirement. Additionally this will have the beneficial effect of increasing the amount of flights each Pacific track can handle.

An ADS-C signal is data sent automatically from an aircraft’s avionics to air traffic control. Reports can be sent whenever specific events occur, or specific time intervals are reached. The ADS-C is controlled by the ATC ground station in all situations other than emergency contracts. Only the flight crew can declare and cancel ADS-C emergency reporting. Although the crew can initiate the emergency-reporting mode, the aircraft cannot initiate one. The purpose behind increasing the frequency of reporting of a position was to reduce the reaction time to establish an alert situation.

Establishing requirements

To establish a 15-minute standard has been a two-year journey that started in May 2014 (see A two-year journey panel). ICAO and the industry began then to cooperate on finding aircraft-tracking position-reporting requirements.

ICAO created NATII to conduct an evaluation of ICAO’s proposed tracking standards for aircraft in normal flight. This included a table-top exercise to test ICAO’s proposed normal-tracking standard in real-world scenarios. It highlighted several major operational problems ICAO’s initial standards and recommended practices (SARPs) could create. NATII’s report to ICAO detailed these problems and in November 2015 ICAO adopted a requirement that operators be able to report at least every 15 minutes the positions of their aircraft over oceanic areas.

ICAO then asked IATA and the industry to continue the work under NATII 2 to develop an additional risk-based SARP along with guidance material to support the tracking SARPs. This work is progressing well according to Buchan.

“From the outset … one of the hopes [was] that operators would not have to outfit their aircraft with additional equipment,” says Buchan. “Most long-haul aircraft already have the necessary equipment, but, smaller narrow body aircraft which fly limited time over water in regional operations might not be equipped for automatic position reporting.

In the SARP, “we are trying to introduce practical ways to allow operators to determine acceptable risk under the SARP criteria,” he explains. The guidance materials are being developed, “to help regulators and operators in understanding how to implement both the normal and the proposed risk-based provisions.”

The ICAO Secretariat presented the SARP and two draft chapters of the guidance material to the ICAO Air Navigation Commission (ANC) in April. Once the ANC verifies or modifies the risk-based SARP, the outcome will go to the ICAO Council for potential adoption. “Our hope is the additional state letter will go out in June-July for comment by the States and will be adopted in the fourth quarter of 2016, to become effective from March 2017,” says Buchan. “The idea is for the whole industry to get 18 months to assess where they are, so they can comply with the November 2018 deadline.”

Recovering answers

However, ICAO has already adopted some measures. On 2 March, ICAO adopted Amendment 40 to Annex 6, Part I of the Chicago Convention (Operation of Aircraft). The amendment contains performance-based SARPS for flight recorder data recovery. The amendment’s requirements apply to aircraft that receive their individual certificates of airworthiness from 1 January 2021 onwards.

The amendment also has a requirement for devices that can autonomously transmit location information at least once every minute when an aircraft is in distress. It is once a minute as ICAO found that when an aircraft’s position had been known one minute prior to its accident, the impact site was within a radius of six nautical miles (11.1 kilometers) of it.

ICAO defines a distress condition as a condition in which, if the aircraft’s behaviour during the event is left uncorrected, it could result in an accident, according to Anthony Philbin, ICAO’s Chief, Communications. Such distress signals may be activated by inputs from the aircraft’s flight management system.

Because the new standards are performance-based, the industry may consider all available and emerging technologies that can meet ICAO’s specified tracking requirements, says Catalin Radu, ICAO Deputy Director, Safety, Air Navigation Bureau. “These could include automatic deployable flight recorders (ADFRs) or other available technologies.” One under ICAO consideration is data streaming through satellite communications.

Amendment 40 also contains a standard for extending from two hours to 25 hours the duration of recordings captured by aircraft cockpit voice recorders. Maintenance datalinks, IFE, satellite communications, 15-minute signals, one-minute signals, autonomous location transmitters, deployable recorders, extended flight deck recordings, the technical options are not insubstantial for watching aircraft flying beyond air traffic management territories. After two years, the standards and procedures are almost finally in place for a global solution. It is a process worth monitoring.

A three-year journey

2014 8 March Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappears.

2014 May ICAO and industry establish position-reporting requirements in remote oceanic or territorial airspace outside of ATM surveillance.

2015 March The multi-national Normal Aircraft Tracking Implementation Initiative (NATII) is created after the ICAO High Level Safety Conference.

2015 Novemberv ICAO accepts the State responses and NATII recommendations to amend the proposed SARPs for Normal Aircraft Tracking. ICAO adopts requirement that operators report at least every 15 minutes the positions of their aircraft over oceanic areas.

2016 March ICAO adopts Amendment 40 to Annex 6, Part I of the Chicago Convention (Operation of Aircraft). NATII 2 produces tracking SARP.

2017 March Tracking SARP in-effect.