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UK and Canada launch satellite-based aircraft tracking system

A satellite air traffic surveillance system capable of tracking aircraft anywhere around the planet has been launched.

The system, which will start tracking planes over the north Atlantic, has been developed to fill the holes in radar coverage – some 70% of global airspace – that became apparent in the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

UK and Canadian air traffic control services will be the first to trial the system.

“For the first time in history, we can surveil all ADS-B-equipped aircraft anywhere on earth,” said Don Thoma, chief executive of Aireon, the firm which has developed the new system.


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Automatic dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B), which is used in the US and other airspace, automatically determines a plane’s location by satellite and broadcasts it. Planes will now be able to update constantly anywhere on earth, by using the 66 satellites in the Iridium satellite constellation, enabling real-time tracking worldwide.

Most modern passenger jets – including the Boeing 777 of flight MH370 – are fitted with the transponders. The planes have until now broadcast their position every 10 to 15 minutes via satellite when flying over the ocean, with a single, short data transmission.

Thoma said it would “radically optimise flight safety and efficiency”.

As well as improving safety, tracking planes through ocean airspace that was previously invisible to controllers will allow airlines to fly more efficiently, Aireon said. It claimed that could save airlines up to $300 (£230) and two tonnes of CO2 on every transatlantic flight.

Air traffic controllers expect to fit more planes into the busy Atlantic corridors, where flights have had to follow set routes at set speeds and heights to ensure safety. Traffic is predicted to grow by more than 50% in the next decade from about 500,000 transatlantic flights per year. Some 95% of that traffic is already equipped with ADS-B technology, which will become mandatory in the US and Europe next year.

Martin Rolfe, the chief executive of the UK’s air traffic control service, NATS – an investor in Aireon – said it was a “revolution in the skies”. He said: “We’ve gone from seeing aircraft positions every 14 minutes to every eight seconds.”

The UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization mandated in the wake of the MH370 disaster that all passenger jets should be fitted with transponders, functioning throughout the flight, by 2020.

The Malaysia Airlines flight disappeared from radar on 8 March 2014 after taking off from Kuala Lumpur headed for Beijing with 239 people onboard, and has not been located.

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