Aireon Casts A Net

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We all may still be waiting for our flying cars and jetpacks, but there’s no question the future has arrived, in ways more subtle but irrefutable. There was the live video of two SpaceX rockets landing on their tails in Florida earlier this year. There’s the imminent first flight of the giant Stratolaunch space plane. And now there’s Aireon, a network of satellites that will make it possible for any aircraft equipped with ADS-B to be tracked anywhere on the planet. No need to send out search planes—a technician at a screen will pinpoint the site of the downed aircraft, and relay the coordinates to rescue teams within minutes.

The project was inspired, at least in part, by the loss of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, which went missing in 2014. Today, flights across the oceans or in polar regions lose touch with tracking systems, and ATC relies on pilot reports, and flight plans filed in advance, to estimate their position. When MH370 went silent, searchers had limited resources to work with, and 239 souls on board remain lost.

Wikipedia lists 43 flights that have gone missing since 1970, including balloons attempting to cross the Atlantic, DC-3s, private jets and cargo planes. A Piper Warrior vanished somewhere in British Columbia in 2017. That loss is a reminder that even here in the Western world, there are big blank spaces on the map where humans seldom tread.

One of the more famous GA losses in recent years was the disappearance in 2007 of Steve Fossett, the multiple-record-holding pilot who took off from Nevada on a solo pleasure flight in a Super Decathlon and never returned. Despite an online search by hundreds of volunteers who scrutinized Google Earth images for signs of the airplane, it was found by chance in 2008 when a hiker happened upon the site.

Presumably, once Aireon goes online next year, this kind of mystery will be a thing of the past. In another 10 or 20 years, the idea of a lost airplane will be as foreign as the rotary-dial phone or rabbit-ear TV antennas. But seldom does something good occur without a flip side. In this case, we lose a little of the awe and dread of living on Earth, the sense that there are places on the planet, wide and empty, that remain unknown and unknowable. It’s a small price to pay for saved lives, but it’s a price worth noting.

Comments (10)

Unless a second transponder that cannot be turned off is installed, this isn't gonna work for situations like MH370. But overall, it's a good thing.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | September 8, 2018 5:40 AM    Report this comment

Mary, I understand where you're coming from. So many people are dreaming of the VTOL replacing the wheeled automobile and scheduled flights to the resort on the moon but, it all takes little steps.

These small steps toward our future are each one awe inspiring. Most of my flying was before the invention of the moving map GPS. I wasted a lot of fuel looking for land marks like water towers, road signs, notable bridges and runways painted with the airport name.

The most incredible young minds are determined to make transportation easy and efficient. I believe in these folks and that they will accomplish what my generation only imagined. Each morning I can't wait to read AvWeb and other technology reporting media exposing the latest "small step".

Oh, I got to go, my phone gadget is conversing with me about the days events. She said the traffic is slow between me and my destination and how I can get around it ;).

Posted by: Klaus Marx | September 8, 2018 11:58 AM    Report this comment

As Larry points out, when the transponder isn't broadcasting, the aircraft is "invisible" to the system To me, this is the worst downside in the brave new world concept of radar-less Next Gen ATC.

Even discounting the presumably "unusual" situations where the transponder is intentionally turned off, any system with so many individual points of failure has its downsides. I laugh at the cable-TV ads which poke fun at satellite distribution because rain fade sometimes can interrupt the signal, when anyone who has both cable & satellite has probably noted the cable, with its myriad possible failure points, runs a distant second in dependability.

Posted by: John Wilson | September 9, 2018 10:49 AM    Report this comment

And there's a 'new' issue, John. In the September AEA magazine, Avionics News, there's a FAQ article about scheduled maintenance for ADS-B equipment. It opened up my thoughts on the subject and answered a question I had when I installed my equipment and haad it certified last year.

It basically says that "the FAA specifically exempted ADS-B from any regulatory scheduled maintenance requirements." It went on to say that "the FAA will use the ground automation system to continuously monitor ADS functionality, which accomplishes the purposes of a recurrent inspection."

This answers one of MY questions about what was being inspected when I took my new 1090 ADS-B system in for it's initial inspection last year. They never looked at the ADS-B output. They ONLY inspected the transponder and encoder for 91.411 and 91.413 checks but never looked at the ADS-B squits. ONLY when I requested a PAPR report for my Rebate did I find it's working.

So what this tells me -- now -- is that unless I actively look at PAPR reports for my installation and check in with ATC often, I may not know that the ADS-B squits I'm pumping out are working correctly. The box does have built-in-test but ... still ... I see issues. Where I see this as a danger would be -- for instance -- for VFR airplanes flying in the Mode C veils where they don't have to talk to ATC, just be properly equipped after 2020. Only when the ground system figures out your ADS-B isn't working and sends you a letter, would you know you have a problem.

If you've installed a 978 solution, it could potentially be worse since the RF output level and frequency aren't being looked at.

And Nav Canada would like to see diversity transponders to properly work with Aireon. Shading will be an issue for some.

SO many years into ADS-B and there are still issues. So -- yeah -- single point failure mode ... indeed.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | September 9, 2018 11:30 PM    Report this comment

You are just being pessimistic. The wizards at the FAA told us that all would be great and well once we have ADS-B in 2020. Single points of failure don't really matter to desk jockeys who have always got a participation trophy. Bet some even got diplomas for dragging their sorry carcasses in to classes. Worrying about single points of failure is so neanderthal.
I remember when public safety radio went from VHF to 800 mHz trunked systems. The equipment vendors (GE & Motorola) made lots of $ but in the field we could not talk to units that we could see due to signal issues. Try communicating from the basement of a burning building to units on the outside. The government really pushed communities to make the change. No one worried the signal propagation issues.
Today, we have had the ADS-B medicine slammed down our throats but the slammers really do not have a good operational plan. Poor bandwidth, no system verification, no scheduled maintenance. Next we will be seeing lots of NOTAMS for this or that ADS-B signal being unreliable. Sort of like the dozens of VOR anomaly NOTAMS that we receive today.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | September 10, 2018 8:38 AM    Report this comment

Leo ... if you can believe this ... at Airventure I wandered into the NATCA kiosk to ask a technical question about how all the ADS-B ground station data is handled, integrated and presented to them on their scopes. The guy there looks at me and tells me it's 100% "satellite based." He didn't know that there were nearly 700 ground stations receiving and relaying ADS-R back up to 'clients.' When I told him he didn't have it right ... he got surly with me. I think he got confused by the fact that position info comes from WAAS GPS but the data they see comes from ground stations. I had to work at convincing him and explain ADS-R. I shoulda told him it was just ... "Magic!"

Mark my words ... at some point in the future once 2020 comes and goes and more people equip ... they'll make ADS-B a requirement in ALL airspace. Once that happens, some rocket scientist / bureaucrat will decide that the ground station system is too expensive to maintain and they'll want to update to 100% satellite coverage. It'll be the ADS-B equivalent of the VOR Minimum Operational Network (MON). At that point, having dual diversity may become necessary? The box makers will love it. And I believe what you predicted will come true.

You used "FAA," "pessimistic" and "Neanderthal" all in one paragraph. Bingo! You made me guffaw. :-) And reliability engineering and single point failure modes ... what's THAT?

Posted by: Larry Stencel | September 10, 2018 10:41 AM    Report this comment

I have yet to see new technology enter the market that was perfected. The FAA ADS-B mandate was issued 10 years ago. Few took it serious including pilots, owners, and manufacturers.

Within the last 12 months more innovation has poured into this than all the previous years. Perfect? NO. But it is going in the right direction.YES. Can it be made perfect coming out of the gate? NO. But it will get refined as time goes on and more and more aviation consumers participate.

As a result costs are coming down, making compliance more affordable. More participation sorts out problems even faster.

Aviation needs to stop being sore winners. How about we be thankful we have this outstanding technology providing weather, traffic, synthetic vision, AHRS, GPS, VOR, voice communications, etc available at our fingertips in cockpits of airplanes from experimentals to LSA's, to GA certified including those even without electrical systems, which rivals what was in an airliner 3 years ago.

It will get better, even more reliable ( which is excellent now), and we will be able to refine the process of integration and separation even better than before.

Is there a perfect airplane? NO is there a perfect pilot? NO Is there a perfect ATC system? NO is there a perfect government? NO

But there are some excellent pilots, controllers, aircraft/engine/air-frame avionics manufacturers, and even government employees with vision and integrity.All of that is and has been making tangible contributions of safety to all our collective "keesters".

Posted by: Jim Holdeman | September 10, 2018 11:56 AM    Report this comment

For almost 10 years ADS-B was coming. Many pilots, aircraft owners, airlines, and avionics manufacturers did not take the FAA seriously. More revolutionary ADS-B technology has evolved in the last 12 months than the previous 8 years bringing with this technology some innovative, creative companies.

Has any new technology, when introduced, been perfect? NO

Are pilots perfect? NO

Are governments perfect? NO

Are ADS-B manufacturers perfect? NO

But there ARE pilots, mechanics, airplane engine/avionics/manufacturers, and even government employees who are committed to designing, engineering, producing, and integrating with genuine integrity, products and a system dedicated to safety. And so far, amazingly reliable.

We have at our fingertips today in-flight weather, traffic, synthetic vision, back-up AHRS, GPS, AOA, etc via iPad/tablets for all kinds of airplanes from experimental through GA, including antique/vintage aircraft with no electrical systems. And this situational awareness was only available to the uber wealthy or airlines just 10 years ago.

We in GA need to stop being sore winners. The advent of this new technology has brought the cost down, allowing more people to participate in ADS-B which will quickly refine the system. We have so much better situational awareness today as a result, even before final implementation of the mandate. Sure there are going to be the occasional glitches. New does not mean perfect.. But new also does not mean automatically bad either.

Like it or not, drones are here to stay. Like it or not, the airspace got more crowded. Like it or not the panels got more complex and give us information overload. Like it or not, there will have to be ways to separate all this increased traffic in ever increasingly centralized locations. Like it or not we will have to install equipment we are not necessarily initially happy with. Acceptance of Mode C went through the same vetting process with all the same arguments.

I am happy that if I am equipped with ADS-B OUT there is a company who is willing to help identify my position if have to park my airplane somewhere other than an airport. Is it a perfect system? Time will tell. But I am positive about the direction it has already gone and will be a significant improvement over present technology as it matures as ADS-B will also.

Posted by: Jim Holdeman | September 10, 2018 3:06 PM    Report this comment

I think the current poll (look right) indicates just how tired the average Joe Pilot is of the ADS-B mandate. I assume the point where the brakes could be hit has come and gone, so this sick freight train is well on its way to a heavy and ugly impact. The FAA trucks on. I can just imagine the manager meetings, discussing how people seem oblivious to the mandate, failing to take the bait and still refusing to spend the money. Yes, I know... I am a Neanderthal Naysayer.

Lets please just do another reminder and reassure those people that no common sense will be applied, just upgrade the damn plane! The FAA knows best and maybe its time we all sat in a circle and repeat that sentence in a song, until we all believe it.

Posted by: Jason Baker | September 10, 2018 11:20 PM    Report this comment

I can believe what is happening re: the lack of understanding of how the ADS-B system works. We once had an enlightened member of congress go on record saying that she knew where electricity came from. It was the little thing that you plug your cord into and the switch on the wall that makes lights go on. We are living in an age where the decision makers are clueless and are proud of that fact.

Guess my years of building launch vehicles and space craft have left me jaded re: system reliability and robust design.

There are some truly knowledgeable and dedicated employees in the FAA for sure. However all it takes is a few idiot managers whose IQ is equal to their shoe size to give us a very poorly conceived system. Then there are the government bean counters looking for revenue sources just salivating at the possibility of taxing the life out of GA. That is my big fear. The easier it is to assess and collect the taxes, the more likely they will be levied.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | September 12, 2018 10:41 AM    Report this comment

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