What to Know About Aircraft Tracking Systems

What are ICAO’s regulations about aircraft tracking systems, what should trans-oceanic business jet operators take note of, and what solutions are available on today’s market? Mario Pierobon speaks with a selection of experts from the industry…

Mario Pierobon  |  26th February 2020
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    Mario Pierobon
    Mario Pierobon

    Mario Pierobon holds a Master’s Degree in Air Transportation Management from City University London,...

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    Private Jet Flies Overhead

    In recent years, tracking systems have been mandated for larger aircraft. Currently the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) mandate applies to all aircraft categories defined in the Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS) concept of operations (i.e., those with an MTOW >27 tons or more than 19 passenger seats).
    There are, in fact, two mandates that fall under GADSS:
    • For normal aircraft tracking, requiring 15-minute position updates at all times.
    • For autonomous distress tracking (ADT), requiring one-minute position updates when the aircraft is in distress.
    “The latter is nominally targeted for 1st January 2021 but is expected for 2023”, clarifies Mark Duell, vice president, FlightAware. “For Business Aviation, the mandates only apply to those doing charter operations, not those flying in-house for a company, individual or family.
    “Although there is no mandate for non-charter operators to have aircraft tracking, we strongly recommend it across the board.”
    Aircraft Tracking: What Does ICAO Recommend?

    For Business Aviation ICAO recommends application of the GADSS requirements too. This is not mandatory, however. “It is the responsibility of the local authorities to request the full application of GADSS for business aircraft operations”, notes Christian Belleux, aviation product line director at Orolia.
    “As far as equipment goes, a modification of the avionics suite is required for aircraft tracking – for example, adding the autonomous distress tracking (ADT) function which is an algorithm, as well as a new generation of emergency locator transmitters (ELT-DT), transmitting the position of the aircraft in distress during the last phase of the flight.”
    Currently, other than ADS-B in the US and FANS-1A in the North Atlantic Track System (NATS), there are no mandates for aircraft tracking systems for business aircraft.
    “Aircraft position is currently being tracked over land through ADS-B Out on aircraft equipped with this technology,” Steve Elofson, senior avionics sales, Duncan Aviation, says.
    “ADS-B is currently mandated in the US and is soon to be mandated in Europe and other areas of the world. Aircraft tracking over oceanic areas is currently available through FANS-1A satellite data link systems.
    “FANS-1A capability is currently required for business aircraft operating in the NATS,” he continues. “It’s likely that in the future aircraft tracking systems for business aircraft will be encouraged through operational benefits such as preferred routing in other remote oceanic areas of the world.”
    Tracking systems have been available and widely used for many years by some commercial aircraft. “The requirements for their use were previously determined not by the aircraft type but by the airspace which it’s travelling through,” says Joseph Teixeira, vice president, Aviation Safety and Cybersecurity at Inmarsat.
    “Technologies (such as Inmarsat’s SB-S) enable real-time data streaming from the aircraft and will meet all future requirements for abnormal and distress tracking, in addition to many other capabilities for commercial and business jet operators.
    “For General Aviation aircraft, other location tracking technologies are widely used, such as ELTs,” he adds.
    Aircraft Tracking: What are the Equipment Solutions

    The Business Aviation industry experienced issues responding to the US ADS-B mandate, partly because not all of the available technology was STC’d for retrofit until very late – particularly solutions for older airframes.
    It’s natural to wonder whether there’s a danger of this happening for aircraft tracking too, should the current mandates become applicable to Business Aviation.
    “If hard mandates for aircraft tracking systems other than ADS-B for business aircraft are imposed by regulatory authorities in the future, slow response to equip is likely to become an issue,” Elofson predicts. “It is more likely that ADS-B will satisfy requirements for tracking for aircraft traveling over land.
    “Business aircraft traveling oceanic routes are typically larger, newer and better-equipped. Solutions for FANS-1A or other satellite-based tracking should be available via STC or Service Bulletin modifications for these aircraft through the OEMs and service/modification facilities.”
    The NATS mandate extended to the existing fleet, and compliance was largely met through existing equipment (Satcom or ADS-B), or via readily available upgrades. In contrast,
    “The ADT mandate only applies to new-build aircraft so there’s no mandatory retrofit requirement,” Duell notes.
    If it becomes mandatory for business aircraft with MTOW lower than 27 tons, or with less than 19 passenger seats, this requirement will be mandatory for aircraft delivered after the applicability date of the mandate, as currently proposed by ICAO.
    “If there’s an STC, it might cover the upgrade of the avionics suite (new function) and new ELT equipment able to comply with these functions,” Belleux suggests.
    “It’s possible that the heaviest business jets will fall under this regulation, mostly because of the transoceanic capacity and range of aircraft with MTOW higher than 27 tons. This might be requested by insurance as well as it would become easier to find and define the trajectory of the aircraft.”
    New aircraft should deliver from the factories with any required aircraft tracking systems installed by the time the aircraft tracking requirements become applicable.
    “New design aircraft are likely to meet the ADT mandate with an upgraded or additional ELT that incorporates the distress tracking detection and transmission requirements, known as an ELT-DT,” affirms Duell.
    Belleux believes that eventually it will be a choice made by every aircraft manufacturer.
    “Some may request the function to be embedded into the avionics suite (algorithm), others may add a new box to receive the necessary data from the aircraft probes and computers to define the aircraft status (emergency or not), and fulfil the function.”
    Many business jets are as well-equipped as commercial aircraft with the latest location tracking technology today. “The requirements for aircraft location tracking are mandated by the airspace,” says Teixeira.
    “For example, in 2019, the FAA selected ADS-C, supported by Inmarsat’s Classic Aero and SB-S services, as its technology of choice for aircraft surveillance in the region.
    “The technology will be used to reduce separation distances between aircraft in the US airspace as part of its commitment to implement new international standards by 2022.”
    Aircraft Tracking: What are the Investment Considerations?

    A FANS-1A upgrade to a modern transoceanic business aircraft can range between $250,000 to $500,000 depending on systems currently installed. The cost of upgrading aircraft to tracking requirements will depend on the architecture chosen by the aircraft manufacturers.
    “The price of the full shipset is difficult to estimate because all aircraft manufacturers have their own standard for interface,” says Belleux. The cost for retrofitting aircraft with location tracking technology will also depend on what regulations are implemented in the future, and whether the aircraft owner needs to upgrade their systems as a result.
    “There are several solutions already available on the market,” Texeira summarizes. “For location tracking alone, a new generation of Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs) may suffice to pinpoint the aircraft location following an emergency or accident.
    “This technology is mature and is used across a variety of industries from aviation to maritime. However, new transmitters will likely be needed to meet more stringent aviation requirements.
    “Technologies such as Inmarsat’s SB-S can enable real-time data streaming from the aircraft including frequent location reporting. This technology is future proofing aircraft by providing a secure broadband connection between the aircraft and air traffic control.”
    What is the Aircraft Tracking Mandate?
    ICAO introduced its new Aircraft Tracking standard for commercial aircraft following the loss of Malaysia Airlines MH370 in March 2014, recommending position reports every 15 minutes. The Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS) was introduced on 8th November, 2018, as part of ICAO’s Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPS).
    Many regulatory authorities have been mandating these recommendations, with operators expected to fit trackers to their aircraft, many using satellite services. However, IATA estimated at the end of 2019 that fewer than 70% of airliners flying in remote regions meet the requirements.
    Meanwhile from 1st January, 2021, under the Autonomous Distress Tracking requirement, new production aircraft over 27,000kg (59,500lbs) Maximum Takeoff Mass must be able to produce position reports once per minute, independent of aircraft power and with the ability to be activated remotely – this being designed for aircraft in distress and for locating aircraft in a search. This capability is recommended for aircraft over 5,700kg (12,500lbs) MTOM also.

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