Covington company touts a better system to track airplanes
Don Ames Reporting
A Northshore firm is working toward federal approval of satellite GPS technology to provide second-by-second tracking of airplanes anywhere in the world.
The Federal Aviation Administration currently uses ground-based tracking stations small enough that they're mounted on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
"There is a major project by the FAA to eliminate ground radar, which is World War II technology, and replace it with GPS-based technology because of the precision of GPS versus old radars," says Jay Monroe, CEO of Covington's Globalstar Inc.
The technology is called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B. It will be required by the FAA on all aircraft by 2020.
Ground tracking stations can be blocked by mountains and other geographical features, and cannot always track planes over ocean areas where ground-based stations cannot reach.
Monroe says his company's system uses only satellites...is faster and more accurate than a ground-based system...and cannot be blocked.
"We deliver a message every second," says Monroe. "It only takes a couple-hundred milliseconds to deliver that information from the plane to the ground, so you always know, within a few feet, just where that plane is."
He says there are other systems competing to be the industry standard in 2020.
"But some of them happen 15 seconds later, and the difference, at airline speeds for 15 seconds is many miles. The message is transmitted down to the ground, and back up to the airplanes in the region so each airplane can see all other airplanes that are near them. But, if that message takes 15 seconds or half-a-minute...by the time you see where that plane is, it's no longer there."
Globalstar's system uses a smartphone-sized antenna on top of an airplane to beam signals directly to its own 24-satellite network.
"ADS-B allows you know if the plane goes up a few feet, down a few feet...we'd know whether it turned hard left...you'd know all of that," says Monroe. "You know exactly where it is. And if it stopped transmitting, you can be fairly certain that it did stop, and that's where the plane ditched."
He says it takes the search out of search and rescue. "They still have to go rescue you, but they don't have to find you."
"And, that's really appropriate when people think about what's happened in Malaysia, on the Malaysian air flight. Because, had that flight had a device like ADS-B, we would know exactly where it is."
Real-time tracking surfaced as an issue after controllers lost contact with Malaysian Air's Flight 370 bound for Beijing on March 8.
The Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation has said that satellite-based systems should become the aviation standard. "Given existing technology, we simply should not be losing contact with aircraft for unknown reasons," said Kenneth Hylander, the foundation's acting president and CEO.
Monroe says his company's product should be fully certified by the FAA in the next 18 months. He says the system has been 100 percent successful in testing over the last couple of years.
Globalstar already makes products that are used widely in the general aviation marketplace, in smaller planes to track the aircraft.
Monroe is a Tulane graduate who moved his publicly held company from California's Silicon Valley to Covington in 2010.