On Tuesday, Aireon, a Virginia-based global satellite tracking company, unveiled a fully operational global GPS flight tracking system that increases coverage from 30% to 100%. The system will allow for real-time tracking updates to some of the most remote places on the globe. The system is now live in Canada and the UK to manage air traffic across the North Atlantic.
There is no timeline for when the system might be fully operational for the U.S. The Federal Aviation Administration will begin an evaluation test of the system in Caribbean airspace later this year.
Passenger and commercial airliners are currently tracked using ground-based radar and ADS-B receivers, which allow aircraft to broadcast their positions in precise intervals to ground-based radar, but not in real time. Ground radar is limited and can’t track airplanes over oceans or remote areas.
To accommodate for the lack of coverage and ensure safety, pilots follow a system of routes that keep aircraft about 80 to 100 miles apart and are required to travel at exact speeds and altitudes, increasing fuel costs and restricting more direct routes.
Aireon was able to solve that issue by shifting the ADS-B system from ground-radar sites to satellites, which were launched into space. These satellites use GPS and cover the entire globe. They are able to get flight data "from anywhere, to anywhere in real-time." And the new global tracking system works with all aircraft that currently have an ADS-B system, making the switch in systems affordable.
This technology could have been critical in the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia flight 370, which went missing over the Indian Ocean en route from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing on March 8, 2014.
The search for the missing airplane went on for four years and was the costliest in history. Teams scoured through 710,000 square kilometers of the Indian Ocean but it's still unclear what happened to the plane.
Investigators did find that the aircraft's automated data system and transponder were shut off sometime during the flight, which prevented the aircraft from sending its location to ground crews. That information would have been critical to narrowing the search radius for the airliner.
With the new global tracking technology, the airlines and administrative authorities would have up-to-the-minute flight tracking abilities and should be able to detect where a plane goes down and then send search-and-rescue crews out faster.