IoT in flight as UN orders real-time aircraft tracking

IoT in flight as UN orders real-time aircraft tracking
IoT in flight as UN orders real-time aircraft tracking

The UN has issued new regulations to ensure that aircraft are tracked at all times – an opportunity perhaps for the Internet of Things (IoT).

Two years ago, Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 set out on a routine trip north from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, before disappearing somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Aside from debris discovered washed up on the French island of Reunion and in Mozambique, not a trace has been found of the plane or the 239 people on board.

The UN’s international civil aviation organisation (ICAO) has now announced new measures to help prevent similar aircraft disappearances in the future.

The new regulations will require aircraft to transmit their position every minute to make, should a plane go missing again, situations necessitating searches of huge areas a thing of the past. This will be done via “autonomous distress tracking devices”, which could potentially lead to the use of IoT sensors and data analytics.

There have also been changes to expectations regarding flight data recorders, to ensure they are fully-recoverable in the case of an accident. The duration of cockpit voice recordings has also been extended from two to 25 hours. Operators will have until 2021 to comply with all of the new regulations.

These new provisions bring closer the proposal of a Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS), which was put forward by the ICAO last year.

Dr. Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu, ICAO Council President, said: “These developments are consistent with the findings and recommendations of the multidisciplinary Ad-Hoc Working Group ICAO formed after Malaysia Airlines MH370 went missing in May 2014. They directly support the concept of operations for the Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS) which was proposed by ICAO at that time, and will now greatly contribute to aviation’s ability to ensure that similar disappearances never occur again.”

Airlines and aircraft manufacturers may consider all available and emerging technologies which can deliver both the one-minute location tracking requirement and the data recovery systems, which could require deployable flight recorders which exit the plane automatically during or before a crash.

“Taken together, these new provisions will ensure that in the case of an accident the location of the site will be known immediately to within six nautical miles, and that investigators will be able to access the aircraft’s flight recorder data promptly and reliably”.

Also read: US airline JetBlue launches lab to test Internet of Things and AI

Tracking challenges – does IoT help?

I spoke with Marc Melviez, CEO of Luciad, a software company specialising in aviation and real-time geospatial visualization. He told Internet of Business that “Identifying and tracking moving things is always challenging. In aviation, Radar has been the tool of choice since the advent of the jet age”.

But radar has several limitations. “The most significant constraints are the limited range – on a world scale, a thousand miles is not much, and ground-based radars do not have that reach. There is also difficulty in identifying an object that does not want to be identified. For example, a commercial plane that does not broadcast its identification.”

Melviez continued: “When it comes to transoceanic aviation, there is no radar coverage for parts of the journey, so other technologies, such as satellites could come into play. But when one starts mixing different technologies to track moving objects, visualization becomes very challenging due to different precision levels. For example, combining a position that is known with 10m accuracy with another position that is known with 1km accuracy, with different refresh rates.”

Luciad provides the technology that can help identify, track and visualize objects in these multi-sensor environments (radar + satellite + radio + others). The technology was originally developed for battlespaces, where constant, real-time identification of friend and foe is critical.

A number of airlines are tracking their staff and cargo through the use of the Internet of Things (IoT), with EasyJet even providing cabin crew with track-able uniforms.

Indeed, a report this week from SITA found that most airlines – and airports – are gearing up for the IoT.

“Half of airlines expect to have IoT initiatives up and running over the next three years. Meanwhile, airports are building the infrastructure to support IoT. Together, this will deliver improved operations and will lead to a change in the passengers’ experience,” said Nigel Pickford, director Market Insight, SITA, in a statement.

Also read: Airbus leveraging Internet of Things and IBM’s Watson for connected aircraft