A version of this article appears in the May 19 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

An industry-led drive to adopt flight-tracking technology will mean quicker implementation than a regulator-driven effort while all but ensuring that harmonized global standards emerge from a related International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) initiative.

The ICAO Council agreed that a task force led by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) will evaluate flight-tracking technology and recommend standards-and-best practices as early as September. ICAO will develop a set of performance standards based in part on industry’s findings and codify them in an annex.

Usually, the process evolves the other way around. ICAO, with input from member states, sets standards and deadlines for incorporating them into state-level regulations, which filter down to operators. But attendees at last week’s ICAO data tracking summit are aware that public perception in the aftermath of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (MH370) may not embrace a typical industry rulemaking-deliberation timeline.

“We have our work cut out for us,” said Kevin Hiatt, IATA’s senior vice president of Safety and Flight Operations.

The task force’s members include representatives from airlines, manufacturers, air navigation service providers, labor groups, and safety organizations. The group will meet monthly starting in June.

Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu, ICAO Council president, said ICAO will “provide necessary leadership” to the task force and work separately to develop performance-based standards. “Once the industry goes through its process, we will issue guidance material,” he explained. “Then comes the standard.”

Aliu, Hiatt and ICAO Air Navigation Bureau Director Nancy Graham emphasized that the strategy incorporates short-, medium-, and long-term objectives. The priority is evaluating what is possible given vendor offerings and fleet equipage. Medium-term, standards will support industry’s progress. Long-term actions will be shaped by new technology as well.

While more advanced satellite-based navigation systems are closing gaps in oceanic airspace tracking, high priority is being given to technologies that cannot be disabled via onboard human intervention—a scenario that could have taken place in the MH370 disappearance when the transponder and Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System stopped transmitting. One option, suggested by the European Commission, is to use a new “return link” coming to search and rescue (SAR) satellite services. The link will allow a ground control station to remotely activate or deactivate a next-generation emergency locator transmitter (ELT) on an aircraft. ELTs have independent power and when activated, transmit a 406-mhz signal that is picked up by a global network of SAR satellites, which in turn compute the location of the activated ELT. The European Galileo positioning system constellation already includes a return-link option, but standards for next-generation ELTs that accommodate the service are not yet complete. 

The new ELTs will also have a link to aircraft data to allow for automatic activation when certain parameters are exceeded. When combined with a new medium-Earth-orbit SAR network of Galileo, U.S. Global Positioning System and Russian Glonass navigation constellations, set for operations in 2018, the next-generation ELTs will allow ground stations to locate and track an ELT within 5 min. of activation, with a position accuracy of 30 meters (98 ft.). 

The summit signals that industry is addressing demand to ensure airliners cannot vanish from radar and—as MH370 apparently did—fly for hours undetected.

Graham noted the industry’s “solidarity” on the need for tracking and says the task force’s work will build upon existing efforts, like those triggered by the June 2009 loss of Air France Flight 447 at sea.

The first step is to evaluate available services. An ICAO vendor survey garnered 22 responses, including one from Inmarsat, which is creating a free, basic two-way communication service.

Rupert Pearce, Inmarsat’s CEO, says the free service will be based on the polling or “handshake” process between an aircraft and its satellite network via ground stations, which was used to help pinpoint MH370’s flight track after it disappeared from radar. The new service would interrogate aircraft every 15 min. instead of every hour. The response “pings”—simple confirmations today-—would include aircraft altitude, speed, and direction.

“From a technical perspective, we can make these services available within a very short number of months,” Pearce said, adding that the company’s existing L-band satellite network links to hardware already installed on some 11,000 long-haul aircraft. 

Inmarsat said it could provide the service immediately over its existing L-band satellite network as part of the anticipated adoption of further aviation safety service measures. The free service will be available to Classic Aero, Swift and Swift Broadband platform users with no additional equipage needed.

Graham noted that ICAO is “grateful” for Inmarsat’s offer, but suggested that more than basic service will be needed.

Work on detailing the standards is just beginning, but ICAO’s survey suggests that six elements—altitude, ground speed, heading or track, time, and aircraft identification—will be part of any approved system.