Satellite tracking goes live across the Atlantic

A Boeing 747-400, landing at Vancouver International Airport, would have travelled untracked over thousands of kilometres over the Arctic before ground-based radar could pinpoint its location (photo: Brett Ballah).

For the first time ever, air traffic controllers in Gander, Newfoundland have live, real-time tracking of aircraft as they cross the North Atlantic. A new system called Aireon is using satellite technology to follow planes through remote areas in trials that began Tuesday in Canada and in the United Kingdom.

Nav Canada, the non-profit company that supplies air traffic control across the country, is a partner in the project that will see Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast deployed around the world, should the trials prove successful.

ADS-B, as it’s called, would provide coverage for properly equipped aircraft anywhere around the world. Currently, only about 30% of the planet is covered by ground-based radar, and airplanes outside of radar range must report their position every 10-14 minutes.

“To know the position, speed and altitude of every ADS-B equipped aircraft in oceanic airspace – in real-time – is a transformational change to how our controllers manage air traffic,” said Neil Wilson, president and CEO of NAV CANADA. “The Aireon system provides an immediate boost to aviation safety and airlines will benefit from more fuel-efficient routings and flight levels. Over 95 percent of the North Atlantic traffic is already ADS-B equipped so the fuel savings, along with the reduced carbon dioxide emissions will be attained very quickly.”

The system, when fully implemented, would allow planes to fly closer together, at optimal speeds and altitudes. It’s expected to save each transatlantic flight up to $300US, and reduce emissions by up to two tonnes per flight.

Nav Canada is also deploying the system in Edmonton, which provides coverage of the high Arctic, though it is not yet operational.

An animation shows how ADS-B uses satellites to track planes (source: Aireon).

“For the first time in history, we can surveil all ADS-B-equipped aircraft anywhere on earth,” said Don Thoma, Aireon CEO. “Our air transportation system has operated with a safe but less than efficient system in the 70 percent of the world that does not have real-time surveillance. With the launch of our space-based ADS-B service, Aireon now provides a real-time solution to that challenge—one that will radically optimize flight safety and efficiency. The aviation industry has now joined the rest of the 21st century where real-time connectivity is relied upon for doing business.”

Aireon provided the conclusive data that led authorities in Canada and the United States to ground the Boeing 737 Max after two crashes in similar circumstances, first in Indonesia, then in Ethiopia, less than five months later.

A study by Nav Canada and UK-based controller NATS, both investors in the project, concluded ADS-B would reduce Atlantic crossing risks by 76%. Should a crash happen, the system is also expected to make rescues easier by providing more accurate location information to search crews.