Inmarsat eyes global aero distress service


Satellite operator Inmarsat says it is prepared to support a ‘global aero distress’ service – mirrored after its global maritime service – to help ensure the airline industry does not see a repeat of the tragic disappearance of Malaysia Airlines MH370.

Crucially, however, this service could not be simply switched off in the cockpit.

The London-headquartered firm, which has provided essential assistance to the MH370 investigation, says this distress service could be implemented in a fast and cost efficient way, using hardware already installed on some 15,000 aircraft in the world fleet.

“Inmarsat would create a ‘global aero distress’ service in the way we operate global maritime. It could be implemented very fast. Our ground infrastructure is already in place so this would provide quick action, and it would be quick for regulators [to approve] as well,” says Chris McLaughlin, senior vice-president for external affairs at Inmarsat.

In the first few days after MH370 went missing, some reports suggested that Malaysia Airlines could have simply signed up for this type of service when it bought its aircraft. But that is not the case.

A total 10,000 aircraft in the world are equipped with Inmarsat’s older Classic Aero service, and some 90% of these are widebodies. MH370, a Boeing 777-200, was fitted with Honeywell satcom hardware to support Classic Aero. McLaughlin likens Classic Aero to “a handset like your mobile phone that connects to the network, and ACARS is like an app on your phone”. So in the case of MH370, where ACARS was switched off, it’s as if “the apps got deleted but the handset was still connected to the network”, leaving nothing more than ‘handshakes’ – i.e. data pings –between Classic Aero and the Inmarsat network for investigators to work from.

Going forward, the key is to ensure that positioning data cannot be disconnected from the network, says McLaughlin. He says Inmarsat believes this problem could be easily remedied by supporting an “additional overlay that provides location data” via Classic Aero, which is already approved by ICAO for safety services in the industry. “You could have a tracker built into the tail frame, for example, doing a one-off job,” says McLaughlin. “This would be separate from ACARS, just streaming GPS.”

An additional 5,000 aircraft in the world fleet are already equipped with- or earmarked for – Inmarsat’s higher-bandwidth SwiftBroadband (SBB) service, which operates over the firm’s newer constellation of I-4 satellites. SBB will be fully approved for safety services next year. “Right now you can solve the commercial airliner disappearing trick just by mandating [this type of service] on the 10,000 Classic Aero [aircraft] already equipped and another 5,000 with SwiftBroadband, approved by safety services, so that is 15,000 by the end of next year,” suggests McLaughlin.

Aircraft operating over the highly-trafficked North Atlantic corridor already report positioning – be it via Inmarsat or Iridium satellites – “but the rest of the world hasn’t got the same pressure upon them for [aircraft] capacity so they’re not doing it”, says McLaughlin. And again a crucial element would be automatic reporting that cannot be simply switched off.

Acknowledging that ICAO would need to approve any type of global mandatory reporting, the Inmarsat executive says it’s “inconceivable that a commercial jet should be flying without giving away position as happens over North Atlantic”.

With that said, “You’ve got the Chinese government behind this now, and others, so I personally think MH370 is a tipping point moment in the aviation industry.” 

McLaughlin suggests that what ICAO and the industry should now consider is “no different than the Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS) regulations that came out after the Titanic [sunk]”. Under SOLAS, most ships engaged in international voyages must be fitted with a Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). An Inmarsat EGC receiver is fitted if the ship is engaged on voyages in any area of Inmarsat coverage where MSI services are not provided by NAVTEX (navigational telex) or HF radio telex known as NBDP.

“Ships are required to carry an Inmarsat tracker and log on every six hours,” notes McLaughlin. “With an aircraft we should do it every 15 minutes, and it’s only [the equivalent] of an SMS text; it’s not expensive. It could be probably less than a dollar per hour.”

Inmarsat’s constellations are global except for the poles. McLaughlin suggests that this distress service could be augmented by Iridium’s lower-bandwidth global network.