Currently, 70 percent of the world’s airspace is without real-time surveillance because of rough terrain, deserts or vast oceans. The technology on the new satellites makes airplanes trackable over the entire Earth, including those black zones.
No one can currently pinpoint a plane in those areas — even on a flight over the Atlantic from the United States to Europe — except the pilot and the passengers. “You look at the screen on the back of the seat and you see the map and you recognize where you are. But air traffic control [only] knows roughly where you are,” said Don Thoma, CEO of Aireon, the company that developed the system inside the payload.
The new technology would eliminate incidents like the aftermath of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. The plane disappeared over the ocean nearly three years ago while flying from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing, China. The body of the plane and the remains of the 239 people on board have not been found, despite an extensive underwater search of the Indian Ocean. Only a piece of debris was discovered off Reunion Island.
Prior to that in 2009, Air France 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean while flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. The flight recorders were not recovered until two years later.
The more recent mystery surrounding MH370 prompted the industry to re-examine airplane tracking standards. National and international aviation agencies have implemented rules and recommendations to make real-time tracking possible.
Currently, U.S. pilots report their positions every 15 minutes. Internationally, pilots will be required to do that by the end of next year. A new rule, eased in by 2021 by the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), makes it mandatory for planes under distress to transmit a location report every minute.