The drive for cost-effective near-term flight-tracking solutions ahead of forthcoming international standards and rules has the airline industry’s two main cockpit data services providers reinventing and evolving legacy products and services to suit. Rockwell Collins and SITA have both developed new packages that will allow airlines in many cases to cost-effectively transition from what had been passive, infrequent flight following to active tracking. Rockwell Collins acquired Arinc's air-to-ground network in 2013.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and industry continue to debate the final form and concept of operations for required tracking, but the initial move calls for airlines to obtain position data every 15 min. for aircraft in the near term and, eventually, increased rates and other requirements when certain problems are encountered. For the U.S., Canada, China and several other countries where dispatchers are jointly responsible for a flight and are already required to actively track their assets, the change could merely mean an update in frequency of the reports airlines already receive in oceanic and remote areas. For other parts of the world where operational oversight is much less stringent, the upgrades will require a paradigm shift in operations. In either case, airlines are keen to maximize the use of existing avionics and data streams while minimizing the costs of any new measures.

“What we have seen since the disappearance of Air France Flight 447 in 2009 is that there is always a desire to find a single ‘silver bullet’ solution,” says Tim Ryan, director of Programs and Services Management for Information Management Services at Rockwell Collins. “And if we’ve learned anything over those years, we’ve learned that a single solution, while it can be fashioned, doesn’t meet the equally important facet of cost-effectiveness.”

While surveillance in populated areas may be provided by the air navigation service providers using radar or other technologies that result in position updates multiple times per minute, the same is not true in oceanic and remote regions where aircraft-provided position reports can be 1 hr. or more apart. For those zones, both Rockwell Collins and SITA can provide higher-frequency surveillance data from equipped aircraft to air traffic control or an airline’s operations center (AOC) using automatic dependent surveillance contract (ADS-C), part of the Future Air Navigation System (FANS) suite of avionics, or the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS). Approximately 80% of the widebody fleet already have FANS, which gives the aircraft the ability to send ADS-C position updates to air traffic control (ATC) at certain intervals, typically 10-15 min., in return for lower separation standards and more efficient routes with less fuel burned. The data are generally sent from the aircraft to the ground via Inmarsat and Iridium satellite constellations or through Rockwell Collins’s ground-based high-frequency data link (HFDL) network.

Separate from ATC, airlines generally communicate with an aircraft over the same data pipes using the onboard ACARS to send and receive operational data, fuel status and position reports, a process that can be redundant and costly when the same position reports are already being sent to ATC using ADS-C. Airlines historically have not attempted to access ADS-C data because it requires decoding.

However, with the impending new tracking standards and the potential rulemaking that could follow, airlines are revisiting processes and procedures to proactively seek out the most cost-effective solutions from the avionics and data streams already available.

Rockwell Collins has been working with as many as five non-U.S. airlines on a new tracking service that will be part of its “GlobaLink” family of services. To be officially unveiled in March, the Flight Tracking Solutions will include working with individual airlines to map gaps in route structures where more frequent position reports will be needed to meet ICAO’s proposed standards, expected later this year, and determine how to achieve the most cost-efficient mix of data transmission methods. Along with data feeds from the FAA for U.S. and U.K. domestic airspace and decoded ADS-C position reports from ATC, the flight tracker will also include Rockwell Collins-vetted position reports provided by FlightAware’s network of crowd-sourced automatic dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B) receivers as “situational awareness” input, as well as a new “back channel” position service derived from Rockwell Collins’s HFDL network. The flight-tracker upgrade can be installed as a software upgrade to the 130 airline customer using either the OpCenter or Hermes dispatch tools.

Future third-party data sources, which could include position data from Aireon’s space-based ADS-B data or possibly inflight entertainment syst7ems, would be considered in the cost-benefit analysis. Aireon, a joint venture between Iridium, Nav Canada and the air navigation service providers of Ireland, Italy and Denmark, plans to have its space-based ADS-B network in place in late 2017 for ATC uses, particularly in the North Atlantic where update rates will allow for reduced separation. Aireon also is designing a free “alert” aircraft tracking service whereby vetted users can obtain tracking information on any aircraft transmitting ADS-B signals anywhere on the globe.

For Rockwell Collins, perhaps most intriguing is the new offer of “no additional cost” position data from HFDL, which is collected as part of a continuously operating diagnostic check of the system. While voice communications over HF, used as a backup to VHF and satellite communications, are associated with high noise levels, the same network is less noisy for data transmissions, which are a lower-cost-per-data packet than satellite services. Peter Grogan, Rockwell Collins’s senior director of GlobaLink data services, says the system today transmits position reports as often as every 10-20 min., but rates can be increased regionally if needed. 

“We believe there is some untapped connectivity solution around HFDL that has embedded position information, but a lot will depend on equipage,” says Jeff Standerski, senior vice president for Rockwell Collins’s Information Management Services. “It would be great if every aircraft had HFDL radios, but every aircraft does not have HFDL.”

Rockwell Collins says 100 of its 166 contracted customers use the HFDL service, and retrofit installations can be accomplished overnight at a “fraction of the cost” of a satellite communications system, according to Ryan. He says a gap study may show it is cheaper to install HFDL on a fleet of long-haul aircraft rather than using position data solutions coming across the satellite links.

Ryan says the airlines Rockwell Collins has been working with have not tested the tracking solution directly in their operations. “We want to provide them with a user interface that they can use to exercise the data and provide some feedback as to how this might work within their operations,” he says.

Competitor SITA has called out a beta version of a flight tracker with Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines, both of which will receive the first operational version via software upgrade in March, says Philip Clinch, vice president for Aircom Services for SITA. Called Aircom Server Flight Tracker, the system takes maximum advantage of existing surveillance data onboard, as well as the means to decode ADS-C position reports already being received by ATC, to avoid costly upgrades to the aircraft. “We offer [airlines] the ability to comply with the requirements for a tracking system that is proactive and doesn’t simply wait for position reports to come in or extrapolate where it thinks the aircraft might be,” says Clinch. “It actively goes out and seeks the information in order to identify when the aircraft isn’t sending it anymore, which is something that does not seem to have been done by most airlines up to now.” 

Data feeds include Inmarsat, Iridium, HFDL for airlines that have contracted for the service through Rockwell Collins, and ADS-B information from Flight-Aware. The Flight Tracker software can either reside within the Aircom Server, in place at the dispatch centers for approximately half of SITA’s 160 ACARS customers, or can be accessed by others via a cloud-hosted system. SITA has traditionally been the provider of ACARS services to airlines outside North America, but does have airline customers within the U.S. and Canada, including Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, Virgin America and WestJet. “They wouldn’t have to change anything in their dispatch centers immediately,” he says of the cloud-based-version customers. “They might have a separate standalone system for the flight tracking to begin with and see how that develops.”

Like Rockwell Collins, SITA is providing its customers with the means to decode ADS-C messages from ATC to lower the cost of obtaining tracking data already being provided. Clinch points out that in regions where air navigation service providers have not yet implemented ADS-C capability, the software allows an airline to request the surveillance data directly from the aircraft. “But we do differentiate between the different areas where ATC is already requesting the position, and we do not request it additionally—we send a copy to the airlines,” he says.

The system goes beyond merely following flights by making the airline an active partner in the progress of the flight. Clinch says the software can “watch out for position reports and has a timer that—if it hasn’t received a position report within a certain time, which is selectable by the airline—can request its own information.” He notes the initial trials looked at only “basic tracking” features that did not include higher rates of transmission when certain triggers are exceeded.

By mid-2015, Clinch says, two new capabilities “that go beyond” basic tracking will be added: Decoding of pilot-controller data link communications to determine ATC instructions to a pilot to determine if movements are planned or unplanned, and monitoring FANS handovers between adjacent providers to identify when an aircraft does not connect to the correct system. 

“One of the things that is going to be the most challenging in identifying when an aircraft is in a situation it shouldn’t be in is identifying when ATC told the aircraft to change course or not,” says Clinch. “Traditionally when ATC has been using voice radio, it is practically impossible to know that without asking the pilot.”

Editor's note: The story above has been clarified to show the re-branding of Arinc as a Rockwell Collins product and service and to correct the number of customers using the HFDL service.