Using Electronic ‘Handshakes’ to Track Airliners in Real Time

The shadow of an aircraft in flight is cast on a field in this aerial photograph taken near Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

A new technology that tracks jetliners in real time borrows a feature of the Malaysian Airlines mystery that prompted it: the “electronic handshake” between aircraft and satellite.

Those signals were used to trace the probable route of the Boeing Co. 777 that disappeared while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing last year.

Rockwell Collins Inc. and nine carriers are testing a tracking system that uses similar, little-known electronic communications to trace aircraft flying over oceans and beyond the reach of radar, Chief Executive Officer Kelly Ortberg said in an interview Wednesday.

The product in development pinpoints an aircraft’s position using technology already embedded in modern jetliners, from high-frequency radio antennas that send signals to satellites, to automated systems that stream data on an aircraft’s performance.

“There’s a lot of disparate info that’s never been used for tracking purposes,” Ortberg said at the Paris Air Show. “Maybe no one of those is very accurate, but by fusing those different things we can create a position for the aircraft.”

Other suppliers are also working on technology to trace planes in flight, a gap in the global aviation system made jarringly apparent by the Malaysian jet’s disappearance.

Planemaker Airbus Group SE said Wednesday that its air traffic management subsidiary is partnering with the popular flight-tracking company Flightradar24 on a similar product. It would also help carriers conform with new standards on monitoring being developed by international regulators.

Ortberg said tests of ARINC Multi-Link, his Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based company’s product, were focused on winnowing unneeded data for airlines fixated on restraining satellite streaming costs. The product should be ready to be commercialized by the end of the year, he said.

For more on the 2015 Paris Air Show, go here: Special Report

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