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US Company Developing Space-Based Plane Tracking


One of the reasons Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 hasn't been found is because the plane couldn't be tracked continuously over the ocean. In fact, nearly 3/4 of the globe is untrackable by ground-based radar, the typical way to keep track of aircraft since the 1940s. One company now plans to deploy space-based tracking payloads so that 100% of the earth is trackable and no plane will ever be "lost" again.

Sixty-six satellites orbiting the planet, the Iridium NEXT constellation, could change the way we fly. Deployment begins in December as they replace old satellites already in place. The NEXT satellites will carry a payload to receive an airplane's transponder signal every few seconds.

MH370 flew out of the range of Malaysian military radar while over the Indian Ocean -- the plane has yet to be found, more than a year later.

Don Thoma, CEO of aircraft tracking company Aireon, said MH370 revealed the limits of the current tracking system.

“It highlighted to the rest of the world and to the public at large what the aviation industry already knew -- that over 70% of the world doesn’t have surveillance. Aircraft aren’t tracked when flying over a major, major portion of the world," said Thoma.

Thoma said the NEXT satellites will show it all.

The satellites’ receivers, which update every few seconds, rely on cockpit equipment already required by some countries as controllers move from ground-based radar to satellite navigation.

Iridium monitors its satellites from a control center in Virginia.

Since planes can't currently be tracked over entire oceans, safety rules require large distances between planes. Once NEXT is fully deployed in 3 years, planes will be able to fly closer to each other, resulting in efficiency and fuel savings for the airlines. Passengers will see more flights and more direct flights to locations around the globe.

Aireon already has customers ready to pay for this real time tracking of civilian aircraft.

They also are building an emergency operations center 10 kilometers north of Ireland's Shannon airport. Any time an aircraft is lost, the airline or rescue organization could contact the center for the plane's last flight track.

"That's unique now because it will be within 8 seconds of when the last contact was made, the distances would have been narrowed down, in the case of MH370, if that was available at the time," said Tony Merrigan of the Irish Aviation Authority.

And that service will be free.

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    Carolyn Presutti

    Carolyn Presutti is an Emmy and Silver World Medal award winning television correspondent who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters. She has also won numerous Associated Press TV, Radio, and Multimedia awards, as well as a Clarion for her TV coverage of The Syrian Medical Crisis, Haiti, The Boston Marathon Bombing, Presidential Politics, The Southern Economy, Google Glass & Other Wearables, and the 9/11 Anniversary.

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