FAA using satellite technology to monitor every Boeing 737 MAX in flight

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Using a technology that streams data from an airplane via satellites, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is now monitoring every Boeing 737 MAX on every flight worldwide to check on the performance of the MAX fleet as the jet returns to service.

The system “will flag deviations from certain parameters during all phases of flight and alert the FAA’s aviation safety division,” the federal agency said. “Safety engineers and inspectors will use the early notification to further analyze the incident.”

Following the two MAX crashes that killed 346 people and grounded the commercial fleet worldwide for 20 months, even routine problems in flight as the planes return to the skies are likely to gain outsize attention and cause concern for air travelers. 

The FAA is using the data to keep a close eye on the performance of the MAXs and to try to detect any issues early. The agency has never before conducted such real-time scrutiny of a single model of airplane.

It has contracted with McLean, Virginia-based Aireon to use a system called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B, to track the MAXs in flight, streaming data from the aircraft every half second to the FAA Technical Center near Atlantic City, New Jersey. 

ADS-B is a more precise tracking system than radar and also transmits more data. And unlike radar, which cannot track aircraft far out over the oceans, the Earth’s poles or inaccessible mountain or jungle terrain, Aireon’s satellite system covers the globe.

Every new Airbus or Boeing jet is equipped with an ADS-B transmitter that continually broadcasts the identity of each individual airplane, its accurate GPS position, its trajectory, its ground speed, its altitude, and its vertical rate of climb or descent, as well as any indication from the airplane systems of an emergency event — such as a code flagging a Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) automatic warning.

For the MAX tracking contract with the FAA, the scope of which the agency has extended after an initial 10-week trial, Aireon will provide daily health reports on the flights that took off the previous day.

For each individual MAX jet, it will report how many times it took off, the duration of the flights and any anomalies detected.

Aireon’s ambition is eventually to replace the world’s current radar-based air traffic control systems with a more precise and global ADS-B system. Its investors include some of the world’s leading air navigation authorities, including those of Canada, the U.K., Ireland and Italy.

Its work with those authorities has already allowed air traffic controllers to shrink the spacing between aircraft flying across the North Atlantic. And the Canadian and British air traffic controllers are starting a trial to scrap the current system of organized tracks across that ocean in favor of more efficient individual airplane routings.

ADS-B can also be used to track the precise location of a plane if it goes down. When a Boeing 777 with 239 people aboard — Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 — disappeared in March 2014, this technology for precisely locating the jet was not in place globally. That jet crashed somewhere in the vast southern Indian Ocean and is still missing.

The FAA has not yet committed fully to the Aireon system, but in November announced a strategic partnership that grants it broad access to Aireon’s real-time air traffic data to allow the agency to evaluate applications, including air traffic control automation, airspace safety analysis and accident investigations. The MAX tracking, an off-shoot of that partnership, will provide copious data on routine operations and flag anything out of the ordinary.

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