The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 prompted a giant, multinational and, therefore, the most expensive search in aviation history. Unfortunately, none of the passengers and crew members have been found since it disappeared in 2014.
In order to eliminate blind spots and delays by optimizing flight paths and heights, last year Malaysia Airlines announced that all the airline’s aircraft will use up-to-the-minute aircraft tracking system, called Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B). What is it? Why is it needed? What are the main advantages of this system?
Radars are not enough to track the aircraft
Let’s start from the beginning. Typically, the world’s air traffic control network is almost entirely radar-based. However, aircraft are also tracked with GPS but this data is not always shared with air traffic control (ATC). This is because of a relatively high handling price, as the volumes of flight data are very large. You may raise the question: are radars not enough to track the aircraft? And, unfortunately, the answer is quite disappointing. The truth is that when you’re flying on an aircraft, you, as a passenger, know more about your current location than ATC does.
It is estimated that almost 70% of global airspace has no real-time aircraft surveillance coverage due to coverage limitations of current tracking technology. “Over oceans or polar regions, pilots must periodically radio their locations to air traffic controllers”, says Don Thoma, CEO of Aireon, a manufacturer of global aircraft tracking systems.
New tracking system is expected to replace the current one
But that is starting to change. The previously mentioned catastrophe of Malaysia Airlines has proved once more the need for a more accurate aircraft tracking solution. “Real-time global aircraft tracking has long been a goal of the aviation community“, stated Malaysian Airlines representative. According to aviation industry experts, there might be a possibility to detect the aircraft more precisely and thus to make flight paths more efficient.
Aireon, the company pioneering a space-based air traffic surveillance service, is set to revolutionize the aviation industry. The company will deploy a global satellite-based system capable of tracking and monitoring aircraft around the globe in real-time. Over the next decade, a new system called ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast) is expected to replace radars as the primary surveillance method for air traffic control.
ADS-B: Technical part
So, how does ADS-B work and why is it better than the current radar-based system? Technical part is that ADS-B consists of two different services, ADS-B Out and ADS-B In, which act as a transmitter and a receiver and both of them could be installed in the aircraft.
An aircraft equipped with ADS-B Out continuously transmits aircraft data such as airspeed, altitude, and location to ADS-B ground stations. ADS-B Out provides air traffic controllers with real-time position information that is, in most cases, more accurate than the information available with current radar-based systems. Up to the minute aircraft location updates greatly enhance the capabilities of searching party to locate the aircraft more accurately in case of emergency.
ADS-B In is the receiver part of the system. ADS-B In equipment allows aircraft to receive and interpret other participating aircraft’s ADS-B Out data on a computer screen or an Electronic Flight Bag in the cockpit. Such a technology opens possibilities of creating interconnected aircraft location network.
ADS-B System Benefits
The main difference between ADS-B and radar based tracking system is that radars share data on flight location via ground-based receivers. The new system will allow airlines and air traffic controllers to receive the data of aircraft position not from receivers on the ground, but from satellites. Therefore, the use of satellites offers more comprehensive coverage of the aircraft in remote regions, as the data is transmitted continuously. Moreover, the satellite-based system is automatic and no external input is required.
According to industry experts, ADS-B system will also allow aircraft to take more efficient flight paths because ADS-B system provides the data and infrastructure for inexpensive flight tracking, planning, and dispatch. This is due to ADS-B being cheaper than the radar system so flight profiles will become more efficient. Aircraft will save time and fuel so the system might cut costs for airlines and passengers. Moreover, ADS-B data can be recorded and downloaded for post-flight analysis.
The use of ADS-B over regions
ADS-B is already called the next generation air traffic control system and the following figures speak for themselves. ADS-B system is being implemented in most regions worldwide, including USA, Europe, Africa, South and Central America, Asia and Oceania.
Moreover, ADS-B is already included in the modernization process of the US National Airspace System. Only ADS-B Out is mandated by the FAA, which in 2010 established that all aircraft operating in designated airspace must be equipped with ADS-B Out by January 1st, 2020. It was previously mentioned that the two types of ADS-B can be installed on the aircraft. However, although both of them are useful, only ADS-B Out is mandated by the FAA.
Nowadays, over 1,300 ADS-B ground stations have been implemented in more than 25 European countries. Furthermore, more than 2,500 aircraft are due (in May 2018) to be upgraded with ADS-B Out.
Flight tracking websites use ADS-B
Have you ever noticed while watching a news report about a downed or missing plane, that the graphics you see, show the location of many aircraft? In fact, these graphs are sourced from flight-tracking apps, which also use ADS-B receivers to track the air traffic. Flightaware.com and flightradar24.com are the most popular among them and you can easily use these apps with a few swipes on a mobile touchscreen. What you will see there is like an image of your chosen region being swarmed by yellow insects (aircraft). Despite the ADS-B benefits for the airlines, the system also benefits each of us with the possibility to monitor the air traffic right from our smartphone.