Earlier this year, I wrote a little post about how Harris Corporation and Aireon were working together to make accurate global aircraft tracking a reality. They’re doing this by placing GPS signal receivers and transmitters as an extra payload on board Iridium NEXT satellites. This allows GPS equipment to send a message through a special radio transmitter from an aircraft to the signal receivers and transmitters on the Iridium NEXT satellites, which would then relay to an air traffic control site, showing, in relative real-time, where the aircraft is. The message would contain very accurate information about where the aircraft is (speed, altitude, latitude, longitude, etc.). And what if you needed that data in an emergency, and you were able to get that for free? That’d be awesome, right?
At least that’s one of the things Aireon will do, according to their brochure. But they also emphasized in a press release from this Monday, that they will make the tracking data freely available in case of emergency. The data will be provided from a program they call the Aircraft Locating and Emergency Response Tracking (ALERT) service, which will provide the aircraft location data free of charge to those who have a need to know where their aircraft went.
How can Aireon make this free? While they don’t really say, they do expect airlines to adopt this technology which will enable some high fidelity air traffic control. The ALERT service is just one of their core aircraft surveillance services, so if airlines find the day-to-day tracking data useful for air traffic control, they just might pay for a subscription for the service for all of their aircraft. Of course, another way to make money is if there’s some sort of contract with particular governments for tracking aircraft and receiving data, too. It might be useful for certain shady agencies.
Overall, this service might address some of the issues surrounding a future missing aircraft scenario, similar to the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 mystery. But if an aircraft is hijacked, and the circuit breaker or power switch of this Aireon system is shut off on board the airplane (and there likely will be a switch or a breaker, if only for safety and system isolation purposes), then the ALERT service will not be that effective. If you think that’s too far fetched, that a hijacker wouldn’t bother with learning how to do that, remember there were similar shenanigans with MH370.
Just don’t get too excited about your airplane being tracked just yet. First, you have to have the proper equipment on the plane. Second, you need a satellite (and really, more than one is required for this service to work) with the receiver/transmitter payload. Which means some time will be needed for all the pieces to be in place for this service. Aireon say they expect the service to be fully operational in 2017.