New satellite-based technology could improve and expand in-flight tracking, making incidents such as missing flight MH370 obsolete.

It’s exceedingly rare for a commercial aircraft to disappear. So when it does happen – as it did when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared from the radar while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on 8 March – the world is captivated. But in such a highly connected and analysed world, how was it possible to lose a Boeing 777?

Much of the world’s air traffic control still relies on radar technology, a system that, perhaps surprisingly, hasn’t changed much since the British military first put it into use in the mid-1930s. It’s a technology that works well enough for routine flight situations, but the system lacks precision and relies on ground stations to relay information, so there are large swathes of the earth where aircraft aren’t tracked at all. A plane flying over the North Pole or crossing the Southern Pacific Ocean, for example, is practically invisible to controllers – except when pilots periodically radio in their position.

Improving upon radar technology is a system called ADS-B, or Automated Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, which was first introduced in the late 1990s  and is currently installed on roughly 60% of commercial aircraft. It is set to replace radar in commercial aviation as the next generation of air traffic control systems come online by 2020. Aircraft equipped with ADS-B are able to automatically send highly precise data, such as aircraft positioning and speed, to air traffic controllers every second. Radar, by contrast, takes up to 12 seconds between ‘pings’ and often results in less detailed information.

But like radar technology, ADS-B currently relies on ground stations to relay information, making it useless over remote areas. That is, until US satellite company Iridium decided to sell real estate on a portion of its next-generation global satellites, which are set to go into orbit starting in 2015 and be fully operational by 2018.

“Someone said ‘What if we stuck an ADS-B receiver on there? We could see every airliner on the planet’,” said Russ Chew, former chief operations officer at the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Chew is now a member of the US Advisory Board for Aireon, the company placing the ADS-B chips on Iridium’s satellites. By doing so, Aireon aims to take ground stations out of the equation, allowing aircraft to send precise positioning data from anywhere on the planet and transforming the industry’s ability to keep track of aircraft in-flight – even when flying over oceans and poles.

“It makes flights over the ocean so much more efficient,” explained Chew. “It saves the airlines money, reduces delays and makes operations safer.” 

Better tracking of in-flight aircraft has been a priority for decades, but because of bureaucracy and the complex and varied nature of air traffic infrastructure, implementation of new technologies often takes time more time than it should. 

“The technology in the cockpit has been evolving towards more connected aeroplanes for the last 20 years,” Chew said. “Oddly enough, the world caught up and passed it by, mostly because it takes a long time to change aeroplane configurations.”

Indeed, the pace of data bandwidth expansion at altitude has been significantly motivated not by governments, but by demand for connectivity from passengers, first on business jets and now on airlines where in-flight wi-fi is increasingly considered standard.

Hans Weber, president and owner of aviation consulting firm Tecop International Ltd, explained that the industry is finally on the cusp of serious change. “Right now we’re in a transition phase. We have a mix of old and new. Once the infrastructure has moved to satellite communication, everything else falls into place much more naturally.” 

Outside of emergency flight tracking, technology like Aireon’s is also poised to make a significant impact on flight efficiency. As long as aircraft are imprecisely tracked over the ocean, as they are now, they need to be separated by up to 100 nautical miles. With precise tracking, they’ll be able to fly less than 15 nautical miles apart. This has the potential to result in millions of dollars in fuel savings per year, a reduced environmental impact, fewer delays – even shorter flights and lower fares. It will also be far more difficult to lose a 777.