Mobile satellite communications provider Inmarsat will offer basic, two-way communications services to track commercial airline flights free of charge in an effort to improve passenger-jet safety following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (MH370).

In a matter of months Inmarsat also plans to offer an enhanced, fee-based aircraft-tracking service to airlines, as well as streaming black-box data capabilities aimed at avoiding the high cost of protracted aircraft search and rescue efforts.

In a presentation to a conference on aircraft tracking hosted by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in Montreal May 12, Inmarsat said it could provide the basic free service immediately over its existing L-band satellite network as part of the anticipated adoption of further aviation safety service measures by the world’s airlines following the loss of MH370 in March.

"We’re looking for them to adopt this offer as a commitment to an evolution for the safety of the air transport industry," CEO Rupert Pearce said in a May 12 interview. "We have a very close working relationship with all the major regulators, and we want to take these proposals and see if they will provide what is necessary to implement this very quickly."

In the near-term, the proposal entails a low-tech fix that would increase the frequency of Inmarsat network transmissions with roughly 80% of the world’s commercial long-haul fleet through its Classic aeronautical service, and Swift BroadBand which already serves some 5,000 aircraft and which is being installed on new planes at the rate of about 500 per month. The satellite transmissions or "pings" would check in with planes every 15 minutes, rather than every hour. In addition, the aircraft’s response would be enhanced to include positional GPS data, such as speed, direction and altitude in the process.

Beyond the basic free service, Pearce said Inmarsat is planning to invest "some millions of dollars" of its own money to improve its network and implement enhanced tracking services and a "black-box-in-the-cloud" capability.

The move comes as one of Inmarsat’s principal competitors, Iridium, is designing a second-generation constellation of low-Earth-orbiting satellites that it hopes will offer a similar service by 2018.

"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 aircraft worldwide.

Pearce said the fee-based service offering would make enhanced position reporting available to provide more timely information to airlines, delivering data "that will allow aircraft to fly closer together safely, reducing fuel bills and making flying more eco-friendly."

Another paid service will offer black-box streaming off the aircraft based on certain trigger events.

"This would allow you to reach back to find out what was on the flight data recorder up to the point when you have your event, and then track in real time thereafter and provide situational awareness in the cockpit," Pearce said.

Following the disappearance of MH370, Inmarsat engineers used data from the Inmarsat 4-F1 commercial communications spacecraft to assist in the search, though Pearce said the satellite pings and handshakes on which the company’s analysis was based were simply "our network talking to our network."

He says it was "pure luck and happenstance that we were able to use that in the case of MH370 to come up with some approximation of where the aircraft flew and where it might be now."

With the proposed flight-tracking service, Pearce said Inmarsat would use its scalable two-way global broadband network to improve upon even next-generation Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) capabilities.

"We don’t think broadcast-only is the way to go, because when the dot disappears from your network, you have no idea why, and you have to go to different systems and services to talk to the cockpit," he said. "But with Inmarsat, already you have the scalable capability to move to two-way communications to get rich situational awareness and start to take action. We already have the global network, and our services are to safety standard, partly because we’ve been providing them to the aviation industry for more than 20 years."

For all three services, Pearce says no additional equipment is necessary.

"We’ll provide all three of these services within the envelope of our Aeroclassic, Swift and Swift BroadBand platforms, so it will be fairly easy to access this service," he said. "SwiftBroadband is already installed on 5,000 aircraft, and we have between 400-500 a month being installed, so this fits very neatly alongside the future aviation satellite services context anyway. It’s just a richer array of services for them to buy off this platform."