It is unacceptable to go on sending planes over the ocean without position trackers, real time weather information, ground based support and no satellite phones. It is wrong that in emergency situations pilots can only communicate with, say, Cape Verde control and not with their own airline, or even plane makers such as Boeing or Airbus. It is absurd that we don’t know where planes are when they fly over the ocean and even when they are on the ground we only know it within a few miles range but not exactly where they are because radars are so inaccurate.

Aircraft in transoceanic flights should send location, heading, speed and other relevant data by satellite; automatically and every few seconds. They should be capable of downloading real time weather data to increase the efficiency and safety of flights and pilot autonomy. Weather radar is a very primitive way to fly, especially without ground support. Weather radars from the plane should be contrasted with satellite info received in the aircraft. There should also be a secondary means for voice communication, also by satellite to be able to quickly contact an airliner crossing the ocean. Furthermore, making these flights safer should impact insurance costs, and increases in operational efficiency would lower fuel consumption.

In this post I present a few possible solutions to these problems. Of course, this is only one of many series of measures that can be taken to make these flights safer.

Voice communication and transmission of important flight data

The Guardian Skytrax 3Xi is a device that transmits GPS location, altitude, bearing, wheels up-wheels down, time and velocity information over the web, where it is accessible through a secure internet connection using IE or Firefox. A transoceanic airliner requires the 3Xi model, which works with external antennas and costs $2395. It can be configured for a message frequency of your choice (eg. one message per minute). The messages are $0.06 each, and there is a one-time activation fee of $110.

This device comes with the Maptrac system for tracking and reports, which costs $39.95 per month. Maptrac is a web-based mapping tool requiring no server, software, data purchase or IT investment. It allows airlines to see all their aircraft simultaneously, whether it be their active or historical tracks. There is a screenshot of Maptrac in action below. Guardian Mobility, the makers of the Skytrax, also have a Google based mapping system called Rimtax which can be used on iPhones and Blackberrys.gview1

The Skytrax is offered standalone and in a package including a satellite phone. This package, including the additional antenna, goes up to about $4000 plus installation.

The cost for installation and certification of this equipment on an aircraft like the A330 is about $8000. The certification required is called a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) and only needs to be done once for each aircraft model. After that, the cost of installation would approximate $2000.

It is also possible to send location, speed, etc. via Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) messages. ACARS is a protocol in aviation communications for the transmission of short messages between aircraft and ground stations via Very High Frequency (VHF) radio or SatCom (Satellite Communications). This can be done for about $0.15/message. At one update per minute it would amount to $108 for a 12 hour flight.

Most planes on transoceanic routes are equipped to transmit ACARS via satellite, so this option involves no certification or hardware upgrades. It is still however more expensive than the Skytrax solution. Assuming two flights per day, one message per minute and the aforementioned prices you would save around $3900 a month by using the Skytrax 3i instead of ACARS. According to this, the Skytrax system is the better choice.

Receiving real time weather data

Real time weather data would require about 512kbit/s. The commonplace SatCom equipment in transoceanic flights uses a band of the electromagnetic spectrum named “L band“. Bandwidth here is too low and expensive to handle the data rates required for this application.

The “Ku-band” is another band that has been used to provide passengers with broadband connectivity aboard commercial flights in the past. It isn’t certified for flight critical functions but it is ten times cheaper at about $0.5/mbit of transmitted data. The intention here is not to replace primary, safety critical systems; but to complement them. Hence, Ku-band could be a suitable type of connection to download real time weather data.

The problem here is that although most of the aircraft that fly over the ocean are equipped with L-band avionics, very few are equipped with the systems required to connect to Ku-band signals. And they are expensive: About $0.25M each. However, this cost can be recouped by selling broadband to passengers, generating ad revenues from adverts placed for the passengers, more efficient flight routes and the lower insurance costs that should be associated with safer flying.

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Luv Sayal on June 14, 2009  · 

Wow, you sound like an expert in avionics.

History indicates that the aviation industry must first suffer some accident to adopt new and sometimes expensive (or inexpensive but cumbersome) safety measures.

Seems like the time has come for implementing a new generation of aircraft communication and tracking systems. Means you have already invested in or are thinking of investing in Guardian Mobility.

3.0 rating

jac on June 15, 2009  · 

nice post, Martin.

Could you give the percentage of the cost of the equipements you recommend compared to total cost of the airplane ? just to have an idea 😉

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Martin Varsavsky on June 16, 2009  · 

less than 1%

laurance on June 17, 2009  · 

How in gods name have airlines not been required to fit the sort of satellite tracking systems commonly fitted to ships and large yachts that work just as the Skytrax you describe does?
How too are pilots allowed to turn of their ACARS messages? Are they under pressure to do so to save their employers dollars?
What about AIS, (automatic identification system) a mandatory piece of equipment fitted to ships that is so good it is displacing RADAR as the primary assistance in collision avoidance. Do they not have that too?
Next time I am asked to turn off my phone on an airplane so it shall not to interfere with the aircraft’s communication system I will be asking, what communication system!
I hope you are reading Mr Branson.

3.0 rating

Rafael on July 3, 2009  · 

Hi Martin, I find your comments extremely interesting. However, I’m not an expert on these topics. Are these GPS systems good for tracking planes at such high altitude? And if so, given the cost savings that may take place from preventing accidents, why do you think they keep the old technology? I mean, if no one is taking action maybe you should try to get mainstream media attention and try to get this article published on lets say the FT. Thanks and regards, Rafael

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