Airbus turns aviation market reach to flight monitoring and analytics

Satellites can track aircraft over oceans, where radar doesn’t reach (Airbus)

19 July 2018

A push to establish a market for safety and analytic services based on satellite tracking of commercial aircraft positions got a boost this week from Airbus, which unveiled a plan to accurately track any aircraft in real-time and identify flight-related events around the globe. The scheme, called AirSense, is built on a “strategic partnership” with Aireon, which is orbiting payloads hosted on Iridium NEXT communications satellites capable of receiving the ADS-B positioning signals broadcast by airliners.

ADS-B – Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast – are an automatic position broadcast which supplements radar tracking of aircraft. But while neither radar nor ground-based ADS-B receivers can see aircraft over the oceans, the signals can be picked up from space. Space-based tracking could prevent incidents like the March 2014 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, thought to have crashed into the Indian Ocean after ending communications and flying off radar.

From November 2018, it will be an International Civil Aviation Organisation requirement that airlines obtain position data at least every 15 minutes on all flights, principally by ADS-B.

Virginia-headquartered Aireon has 55 of its ADS-B transceivers in orbit, giving it near-global coverage; another 20 should be flying by year-end. According to the two companies, which revealed the scheme at this week’s Farnborough air show, AirSense will combine Aireon‘s ADS-B data “with unique Airbus assets and domain expertise to offer advanced analytics leading to further enhance the aircraft situational awareness, optimise flight routes, increase airport capacity, optimise airspace utilisation and improve the overall travel experience”. Airbus Defence & Space executive vice president Evert Dudock says the plan is to “further develop aggregated, live and predictive analytics”.

Apart from the safety application of tracking aircraft in flight, data on aircraft utilisation – movements, time in flight, diversions, time spent on the ground, etc – is valuable to airlines, airports, equipment manufacturers, repair centres, etc for planning routes and anticipating requirements for everything from tyres to major periodic overhauls and even the acquisition or disposal of aircraft.

In anticipation of ICAO’s ADS-B tracking requirement, several companies are preparing space-based services. Aireon has been building its constellation since the first Iridium NEXT launch in January 2017. San Francisco-based Spire this week expanded its constellation of LEMUR2 nanosatellites by four units, to 81, introducing its own AirSafe ADS-B payloads to the usual suite of ship and weather tracking sensors. Spire says its AirSafe tracking and compliance service will be available from 2020. And, Aerial & Maritime of Denmark plans to offer global coverage of both ADS-B and its maritime counterpart, AIS (Automatic Identification System), from 2021 with a constellation of nanosatellites built by sister company GomSpace.

ADS-B is not new, but its space dimension became evident by mid-2015, as an experiment by the European Space Agency and Germany’s DLR aerospace agency determined that “detection of aircraft can work from space with no showstoppers, despite the fact that these signals were never designed to be picked up from so far away.” DLR’s Toni Delovski, who was overseeing the experiment, noted at the time that “the signals are beamed sideways from their host aircraft rather than omnidirectionally, making them harder to detect from orbit.”

ESA and DLR were picking up aircraft signals with a single ADS-B payload added to a small satellite – about 1m cubed – called Proba-V, whose main task is to measure vegetation. But between launch in May 2013 and May 2015, that single receiver had picked up 25 million positions from more than 15,000 separate aircraft.