Aireon to Develop Plane-Tracking Satellite Network

Statistics show that flying is inherently safer than driving. For every 1 billion passengers who travel via a commercial airliner, only 7.2 fatalities occur. In fact, there were zero passenger fatalities reported in the commercial airline industry in 2017. Some people are still skeptical of flying, however, because of recent incidents in which planes have seemingly fallen off the radar. But a company called Aireon is hoping to ease the public’s worries by developing a new network of satellites that’s capable of tracking the location of all commercial airlines.

Just a couple weeks ago, SpaceX launched 10 Iridium Communications satellites into orbit. These aren’t ordinarily communications satellites, however. Rather, they contain GPS-tracking hardware that’s designed specifically to track planes while in flight. There’s already a network of plane-tracking satellites in Earth’s orbit, but they are largely obsolete compared to today’s standards. This has prompted Aireon and Iridium Communications to replace the aging network of satellites with newer, more powerful satellites to better track the location of all commercial airliners.

According to a press release by Aireon, the new network of satellites are designed to communicate with GPS transponders. In both the United States as well as Europe, all airplanes are required to have a GPS transponder installed by 2020. Otherwise, they could face fines or penalties by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). With this requirement in place, it means that Aireon’s net satellite should be able to track all airplanes in the skies, assuming they comply with the FAA’s or EASA’s rule of having a GPS transponder installed.

Today we passed a major milestone on our journey to revolutionize air traffic surveillance and are just weeks away from a fully operational system,” said Aireon CEO Don Thoma in a statement regarding the new plane-tracking satellite network. “Now that the launches are complete, final integration and testing of the recently launched payloads can commence, after which the world’s first, real-time, truly global view of air traffic will be a reality.”

Thoma added by saying that roughly 70% of the world’s airplanes lack an always-on tracking system. When an airplane flies over the ocean, for example, it generally reports its position back to the respective air traffic control center about once every 15 minutes. The problem is that there’s a large window in which these planes remain off the grid. If a problem occurs, the air traffic control system won’t know the airplane’s exact location; it will only know the location from its last communications correspondence. That’s something the Aireon is hoping to fix, however, by developing a new network of plane-tracking satellites.