Inmarsat played a central role in determining the fate of the lost Malaysia Airlines flight

Interview: Ruy Pinto Inmarsat's COO on aviation satellite tracking

Inmarsat, the UK-based satellite operator that gained widespread recognition for its contribution in explaining the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, is pushing for widespread adoption of satellite based tracking services in aviation. E&T spoke to the company’s Chief Operations Officer Ruy Pinto to hear about Inmarsat’s vision of future aviation.

"There is no need to wait for another technology,” Pinto says. “We can provide solutions that are available today.” Two days before our interview Inmarsat had announced, ahead of others in the field, that it will offer free tracking services via its satellites to all aircraft already carrying its terminals on board.

The announcement, made ahead of a meeting organised by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to discuss global aircraft tracking, sent a strong signal to the flying public that it is not technology that lags behind but the standards and regulations.

The insufficient and insecure tracking capabilities have been widely considered the main reason behind the inability of international search teams to determine precisely where flight MH370 crashed and locate its wreckage after months of costly efforts.

Commercial barriers

Although the core of aircraft tracking in commercial aviation is still being done using ground-based radars that don’t have coverage above oceans and other remote areas, satellite-based technology enabling constant monitoring worldwide already exists. However, with the exception of planes travelling on transatlantic routes between Europe and North America, implementation of such systems is pretty much voluntary and based on the airline's willingness to invest.

“Most of the technology has been available since the Air France tragedy in 2009,” says Pinto, referring to flight 447 that crashed in to the Atlantic Ocean en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, France. “What we are trying to do now is to remove what some may consider a commercial barrier to speed up the uptake of satellite-based positioning services in the aviation community. By eliminating a commercial barrier, we are shortening the time required to update the procedures and helping the aviation community to adopt satellite tracking services.”

Some 11,000 transoceanic airplanes around the world, nearly 90 per cent of the global long-haul fleet already carries Inmarsat’s systems. Inmarsat’s Classic AERO, developed in the 1990s, is an industry standard. It supports the aircraft communications addressing and reporting system (ACARS), collecting on-board data such as location, altitude, heading and speed and transmits it to Inmarsat's network.

The lost Malaysian aircraft was equipped with Classis Aero and despite the fact that the ACARS was disabled in the early hours of the doomed flight, the system kept sending regular signals to Inmarsat’s geostationary satellites for another five hours. Those regular handshakes eventually enabled the company’s analysts to determine how long the aircraft remained airborne and where approximately it ran out of fuel.

Inmarsat also provides an advanced system called Swift Broadband that already offers tracking capabilities. However, the system is not yet fully certified.

“The free tracking services which we are offering will be available to all airliners that carry either Classic Aero or Swift Broadband,” explains Pinto. “Classic Aero users who would want to use this service have to do a software upgrade but we are offering to do that at our own cost. In terms of hardware there is no further investment needed on the side of the airlines.”

The basic service will transmit location coordinates, speed and heading of the aircraft. Inmarsat is now working with ICAO, a UN body responsible for developing aviation standards and regulations, and the International Air Transport Association representing industry members, to determine how frequently the data should be transmitted to ensure ground controllers have sufficient control over the aircraft’s whereabouts.

“We think that every 15 minutes would be a reasonable interval for a free tracking service,” says Pinto. “The bandwidth available on both – Classic Aero and Swift Broadband would be more than enough to accommodate such a service. We don’t see an issue there. Where there may be a need for some upgrade is Inmarsat and its distributors who would have to upgrade some of their ground systems to be able to provide the data seamlessly to the airlines. But that’s on the ground, not in the airplanes.”

Black box in the cloud

The company has gone even further, proposing its systems could be used to stream data from flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders, better known as black boxes, into the cloud.

In the case of an aviation disaster in remote areas, such service would remove the pressure from the search teams as basic data related to the situation prior to the accident would be known immediately. Calls for such systems first occurred after the loss of the Air France Flight 447 in 2009 and intensified again after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

While in the case of the French Airbus the black box batteries expired before the black box locator signal had been intercepted, with MH370 the search teams had a bit more luck. A signal consistent with that of a black box was recorded in the last days prior to the batteries’ end of life. Nevertheless, the wreckage has still not been located and it is unsure whether the black boxes will ever be retrieved. Without them, the mystery of flight MH370’s disappearance will likely never be untangled.

“The technology to provide a subset of black box data in real time from an airplane is there, but it’s not mandated and the subset of data is not defined,” says Pinto.

“We are now working with the regulatory bodies such as ICAO and IATA, as well as with the airlines, trying to define that service and how it could be implemented in Classic Aero and Swift Broadband. Swift Broadband would obviously allow transmitting a bigger set of data than Classic Aero, but both are sufficient to provide a basic service, which, however, would not be a part of the free tracking offer.”

The data streaming would not be done continuously. Inmarsat proposes ACARS information could be used to detect potentially dangerous deviations from the aircraft’s normal flight status – including sudden veering off course – to trigger the data upload. Apart from the aircraft status data, conversation between the pilots, as captured by the cockpit voice recorder, would be streamed as well.

“I don’t think we would have a bandwidth problem because we are transmitting the data only after a trigger by some unexpected changes to the airplane status, so bandwidth is not an issue,” says Pinto.

However, he admits that there are privacy concerns among pilots, who may seem not very keen on the prospect of their superiors possibly eavesdropping on them. “We would have to invest into and adapt our systems to address the privacy concerns. Either the data could be automatically erased after a certain time or it could have a very limited access and not be available to normal operations,” he says. “There are ways in which you can address privacy concerns, similar to secure connections that you can see on the Internet. However, these mechanisms would have to be mandated by the regulation,” says Pinto.

Global coverage

The main advantage of satellite-based aircraft tracking is its global coverage without blind spots – the major issue of the currently standard radar-based tracking.

Inmarsat is not the only satellite-communications provider developing services for aviation. US satcom firm Iridium and United Arab Emirates-based Thuraya offer similar services.

“The main advantage of our services is that we do not only have global coverage but we also have in-orbit satellite redundancy,” says Pinto. “That means that in the unfortunate case of a satellite failure, we have other satellites in place that could plug the gap immediately without the customer noticing any effect.”

Inmarsat’s fleet currently consists of five satellites in geostationary orbits at the distance of some 36,000km hanging constantly above pre-defined spots on the Earth’s surface. A further three satellites are expected to launch in the upcoming months.

The fully connected future of flying

Inmarsat (short for International Maritime Satellite Organisation), was founded in 1979 as a non-profit international organisation set up on request of the International Maritime Organisation, a UN body responsible for developing regulatory framework for the maritime industry. The company was privatised in 1999.

In the 1990s, Inmarsat branched out into the aviation market and has since cemented its position in the field.

Apart from aircraft tracking and ACARS support, it offers satellite telephony for the aviation industry and is a pioneer in providing high-speed broadband Internet connectivity to passengers aboard airplanes.

The newest addition to the company’s fleet, the constellation of four Global Xpress satellites, manufactured by Boeing, has an ambition to revolutionise passengers’ in-flight experience, offering consistent broadband performance of up to 50 Mbps. The first Global Xpress satellite was launched in late 2013, with the launch of the following two now likely postponed due to technical problems of Russia’s Proton rocket.

“In the long-term future, we envision an aircraft that will be permanently connected, like an IP node, similarly to how your house is connected,” explains Pinto. “There will be safety services, which will have a priority of course, like a 911 call, using IP priority protocols. The performance of the plane will be constantly monitored and data transmitted immediately to the airlines, but there will be also advanced passenger services.

“We would like to provide an integrated service that would make an aircraft almost an extension of the airline head-office. While the plane is flying, you can have access to the Internet, you can have all safety information and positioning information at hand but you can also have live TV. We believe the environment of future aircraft would not be much different from what you can find in an airport lounge.”

Whatever the future capabilities, the aviation community has to make sure the technology is reliable and secured against the most unlikely scenarios. In the unfortunate case of Flight MH370, it was likely a human intervention – disabling some of the critical monitoring services – that led to air-traffic controllers completely losing track of the aircraft, something the airlines would certainly want to avoid in the future.

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