April 26, 2017
Subject: Aircraft Tracking, Space Based ADS-B, and Timely Access to Flight Recorder Data, Part 1
Dear Shareholders and Interested Parties;
In May of 2016, in the Third Edition of 2016 CEO Letters, I discussed the status of aircraft tracking regulations. In summary, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) council adopted new amendments to Annex 6 (Operation of Aircraft) that will take effect between now and 2021.
The flight tracking requirements are attracting product entrants into the aviation technology space and Aireon’s space-based ADS-B is probably being the most discussed. Is this technology disruptive and problematic for FLYHT? I believe not. Flight tracking certainly is a value proposition for the FLYHT solution, but it is not the central value proposition. The Automated Flight Information Reporting System’s (AFIRSTM) core value proposition is real-time data streaming to reduce airline operating costs, streamline airline operations and proactively enhance safety, preventing accidents and potentially saving lives. Aireon and other competing tracking solutions essentially do none of these functions.
Let’s look at what Aireon offers through their marketing partners and how it works. A short history is required to understand the current offering.
Air Traffic Management depends upon Communications, Navigation and Surveillance (CNS). Reconnaissance, or the understanding of an aircraft location, altitude, speed and direction is a critical activity for air traffic control. Historically, the surveillance activity was performed with primary radar, or bouncing a radio signal off flying objects, receiving the reflection and determining aircraft azimuth, altitude and speed. Technology improvements gave way to secondary radar, where a radar interrogation stimulates an aircraft installed transponder to broadcast its location, altitude, direction and speed. This enhancement dramatically increased the range of aircraft radar. About ten years ago, Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) began being deployed as a replacement for secondary radar in many locations under the FAA’s Next Generation Air Traffic Control System (NextGen) and European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) Programme. Infrastructure was planned, for example, the FAA created contracts for the installation of 600 ground stations to receive ADS-B signals and required that aircraft operating in US airspace be equipped with ADS-B transponders by year 2020.
The ADS-B transponders on board aircraft provide a reconnaissance function for air traffic control and provide situational awareness items such as location, speed, heading, etc. ADS-B transponders replace secondary radar for tracking aircraft. Equipped aircraft report their Global Positioning System (GPS) position on a dedicated 1090 MHz frequency and terrestrial receivers and other aircraft listen to this ADS-B “out” signal on their ADS-B “In” channel. The deployed terrestrial receivers route the received data to air traffic control (ATC) who uses the information to route traffic while aircraft use the ADS-B-in data to form a situational awareness picture of their surroundings.
Two companies have put together plans to collect surveillance information from space, or space based ADS-B. Aireon is a joint venture between Iridium and four Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSP). Also, Globalstar has a partnership with ADS-B Technologies of Alaska. Both Iridium and Globalstar use low earth orbiting satellites (LEO) that, if equipped with ADS-B receivers, can listen and report the surveillance signals broadcast by aircraft transponders in their receiving area.
The first ten of 66 Iridium NEXT satellites have been launched with an Aireon payload which is a space based ADS-B receiver. It will listen to the 1090 MHz frequency and report aircraft transmissions which will contain position information. So, if an aircraft is equipped with ADS-B, the service provided by the Aireon data will provide information “where” the aircraft is; provided you pay for the service that Aireon and their partners will provide. However, the service will not provide awareness about what is happening onboard the aircraft or the aircraft’s operational state. This service will not indicate “how” the aircraft is; it’s operational state and whether the aircraft’s systems are operating within normal parameters. The service will also not explain “what” is happening onboard the aircraft; is the aircraft flying within normal parameters, e.g. speed, roll, pitch, yawl, etc.? ADS-B is not a communication channel that can be modified or altered to send the rich information to benefit flight operations and maintenance that FLYHT’s AFIRS can send. AFIRS can provide real-time data from specific systems on board the aircraft, Aireon cannot since the ADS-B system implements an ATC reconnaissance function with a very specific and limited intended function.
There are many different tracking technologies that will allow compliance to certain aspects of the ICAO mandates, whether it is Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), or ADS-B, or space based ADS-B, or ADS-C – a Future Air Navigation Systems (FANS) surveillance function that will report aircraft location to operation centers. There are also technologies, like FLYHT’s, that can be installed and provide tracking in addition to or in lieu of these other technologies. However, none of these other technologies satisfy both the Autonomous Distress Tracking (ADT) requirements as well as the Timely access to Flight Data requirements, like FLYHT’s AFIRS. There are no other solutions with the extensive list of AFIR’s Supplemental Type Certificates which effectively serve as a barrier to entry. They don’t provide rich exceedance reports for aircraft systems and engines. They don’t allow real-time remote diagnostics to be performed on an aircraft while it is flying to understand a problem and avoid an accident. None of these technologies allow a ground operator, a pilot or an autonomous trigger to begin streaming the contents of the flight data recorder. They simply do not provide a complete picture of situational awareness like FLYHT’s technology does.
This last function, black box streaming, will figure very large in FLYHT’s future and in the solution of Amendment 40, Timely Access to Flight Data Recorder Information requirements. This will be the subject of part two of this letter, which will be published soon.
Best regards –
Thomas R. Schmutz