ARINC Inc, acquired last year by Aeronautics giant, Rockwell Collins, developed and introduced ACARS messaging during the earliest years of commercial flight and insist that the technology is available today for real-time aircraft tracking. The debate continues in the wake of the tragic disappearance of Malaysian flight MH370, now into the fourth month with no news.
In-flight connectivity providers and satellite companies are currently competing for business with Inmarsat, the British satellite company that provided additional information about the ill-fated flight and Iridium both supporting flight deck communications and aircraft tracking solutions as they have done for years.
More than 300 airlines and 15,000 aircraft have relied upon the industry-standard ACARS and ARINC GLOBALink for mission critical transmissions. Rockwell Collins’ CEO, Kelly Ortberg said, “We may have to write some software, we may have to do some different things; upgrade the aircraft to implement this capability, but we don’t need to invest in new technology.”
With VHF datalink extending throughout Central and North America, most of Europe and Asia, Inmarsat’s satellite network providing coverage to expand VHF capability to encompass real-time data reporting and weather updates and Iridium’s network reaching the remote oceanic expanses and Polar Regions, it is clear that the technology is indeed available to bring global coverage within reach of the world’s airlines and operators.
Aviation messaging is under scrutiny at the moment, particularly by IATA and ICAO, who are working together to investigate the options for airlines in terms of global tracking to avoid another MH370 crisis at all costs.
It has been announced that the aviation regulator for India has issued a mandate for airline crew to be given training on the ACARS system, following the disappearance and issues surrounding flight MH370.
ACARS delivers and receives mission critical messaging throughout the flight, unless manually deactivated. These messages may include NOTAMs, OOOI, engine information and aircraft performance figures, including air speed, issues, position and weather reporting.
Currently, the only area where ACARS coverage is mandatory is within the North-Atlantic route.
Although some Indian airlines have incorporated ACARS into their aircraft, with the largest operator, IndiGo having used ACARS from their earliest flights, several airlines do not have ACARS capability. Murmurs around the aviation industry suggest that every flight should carry the latest that technology has to offer for mission critical messaging.
A key question that has been on the lips of much of the public was how missing flight MH370 could still communicate with satellites, according to the latest Inmarsat information, when reports claim that the on-board ACARS system had been disabled?
The answer to this lies in the workings of the ACARS system itself. Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) has been the industry standard data communications system since the 1970’s. Developed and introduced by ARINC Inc, ACARS gives a data link from air-to-ground, relaying critical information regarding the flight, aircraft systems and also gives the ground-based operators means to relay NOTAMs, weather data and in-flight messages to the flight deck.
If ACARS failed, or was manually disabled during the flight, how, then, did the satellite appear to receive information after this? ACARS carries satellite equipment outside the aircraft that cannot be tampered with while the plane is in flight. The internal workings of ACARS in the cockpit can be disabled with a simple manual action. This is possible because of the risk of electrical fire on the flight deck.
Although ACARS, once manually disconnected, will not relay information, the satellite equipment outside the aircraft will send and receive ‘pings’ or digital handshakes periodically to determine the status of the network.
It is these pings or handshakes that the satellite picked up. While the aircraft responded to these pings, it was clear that it had power, was likely intact and in flight, although this does not prove beyond doubt that it was not intact on the ground.
The search continues for flight MH370 and leaves many questions unanswered.