Aireon to offer satellite tracking free to help search for missing planes

Mon Sep 22, 2014 6:00am EDT
 
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By Alwyn Scott and Jeffrey Dastin

NEW YORK, Sept 22 (Reuters) - Aireon LLC, a provider of satellite-based aircraft monitoring, said on Monday it will offer its tracking data for free to help authorities search for future missing planes.

The system will go live in 2017, when its parent company Iridium Communications Inc finishes installing 66 next-generation satellites plus spares that will provide real-time data to air traffic control centers.

While Aireon's system might not have prevented the loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished from radar on March 8 and is presumed to have crashed, killing 239 people, it could have vastly improved the search. Existing technology can track aircraft flying over seas every 10 minutes, while Aireon says its upcoming system will transmit location data twice per second, using what's known as automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast, or ADS-B.

"Because of these inter-satellite links, it not only provides pole-to-pole coverage, but it gives real-time transfer of that data," Aireon's chief executive Don Thoma said. "In the event of an accident or an emergency, we would have that information (and) provide it to the appropriate authorities."

The McLean, Virginia-based company has received more than $280 million from air traffic authorities in Canada, Italy, Ireland and Denmark as well as from Iridium to put ADS-B capability on the satellite network.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has erected 634 towers nationwide to support ADS-B communications, although unlike satellite systems, the coverage is limited to aircraft flying over land.

The FAA has not announced whether it will enter an agreement for satellite service with Aireon or Iridium's competitor, Inmarsat Plc. While Thoma would not comment on the FAA's timeline for choosing a system, he said Aireon was working with regulators to help them make a decision.

Thoma expects major carriers to outfit more than 90 percent of their new planes with the necessary hardware by 2020 as more governments require airlines to transmit ADS-B data.

Aireon's emergency service will be free assuming that the lost aircraft is already compatible with its system. Data on a missing plane would be unavailable if someone maliciously turned off the surveillance system in-flight as well. (Reporting by Alwyn Scott and Jeffrey Dastin in New York; Editing by Diane Craft)