'Free' global aircraft tracking service proposed by satellite company

The technology could be used to track aircraft in trouble, and to store black box information in the cloud

In the wake of the loss of flight MH370, satellite communications service provider Inmarsat has proposed to develop a global airliner tracking service that can be implemented for little to no cost.

The company is offering the system to all 11,000 commercial passenger aircraft that are already equipped with Inmarsat satellite technology, which is the vast majority of the world's long haul commercial fleet, the company said Monday. The idea was pitched to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in advance of a conference on aviation safety being held in Montreal today.

Inmarsat will also offer what it calls a "black box in the cloud" service. Events such as an unapproved course deviation will trigger this service to start streaming historic and real-time flight data and cockpit voice recorder information via satellite to aviation safety personnel, the company said.

The system was proposed in the wake of the loss of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared mid-flight in March and hasn't been found yet. The plane was equipped with an Inmarsat device, and "pings" from this allowed Inmarsat to provide the best estimate yet of the plane's final location. The data the pings carried did not include location information, but Inmarsat was able to use other characteristics of the received radio signals to provide clues as to the plane's final location.

The tracking service, which will add location data to those pings, can be implemented right away on all ocean-going commercial aircraft using equipment that is already installed, Inmarsat said, adding that it aviation safety partners are fully supportive of expanded use of its current automatic dependent surveillance system ADS-C.

That system is used for the automatic reporting of an aircraft's real-time position, including altitude, speed and heading, via satellite to air traffic control centers, according to the company's website. It helps aircraft controllers to know where an aircraft is at all times.

Inmarsat also proposed the idea to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and said the system could be made available to the industry quickly and "at little or no cost".

The company didn't say how much the system could cost for customers and couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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