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Aireon To Offer Free Space-Based Aircraft Tracking Service

Artist rendition of Aireon's global air traffic solution. Photo: Aireon

A company establishing a global commercial aircraft-tracking service says it will offer a piece of that capability, free-of-charge, to all airlines equipped with automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) terminals.

The company, Aireon LLC of McClean, Virginia, a joint venture between Iridium and air navigation service authorities in Canada and Europe, said on Sept. 22 it would make available free ADS-B tracking as an emergency service to all certified air regulators and search-and-rescue authorities, regardless of whether they subscribe to Aireon’s fee-based commercial aircraft-surveillance offering.

Known as Aircraft Locating and Emergency Response (Alert), the system will use already-mandated ADS-B equipment on commercial Airbus and Boeing aircraft; thus it should not require additional investment by airlines or air navigation safety providers for equipment or services.

“We built the system for real-time surveillance of aircraft for efficiency improvements, not to find the occasional missing aircraft,” Aireon President and CEO Don Thoma said in an interview.

“But given that most aircraft in the world will be equipped with ADS-B, including a large percentage that will be equipped even by 2018, we will have a capability that will be collecting the location information on aircraft around the globe.”

Thoma says the company plans to develop an Alert application that will allow registered users to create an authentication process enabling them to log in and query an aircraft’s last-known location and flight track, so long as the ADS-B system is operational.

“For those organizations that don’t do it that way, there’ll be a 24/7 call center that can get that information to them,” he said.

Aireon’s ADS-B terminals are being fitted onto the second generation of Iridium’s 66-satellite, mobile-services constellation, which is scheduled to enter service in 2017. Rival Inmarsat of London, whose satellite fleet covers all parts of the globe except polar regions, said recently it would offer a similar service to airlines. Globalstar of Covington, Louisiana, is also working on an ADS-B service using its second-generation satellite constellation.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the U.N. regulator of wireless spectrum, expects to meet next year to consider extending the current radio-frequency allocation, reserved for air-to-ground ADS-B communications, to include space-based ADS-B.

Despite the European Satellite Operators Association’s opposition to the extension, Aireon’s Alert proposal could give ITU regulators the impetus necessary to add satellite links to the existing spectrum allocation for ground-based ADS-B.

In the meantime, Aireon says it plans to engage aviation stakeholders over the next 12 months, “to define the technical, operational and legal details of providing this service in emergency situations.”


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