Listeners To NPR: Why Don't We Track Planes Like We Do Ships? | KUOW News and Information

Listeners To NPR: Why Don't We Track Planes Like We Do Ships?

Feb 6, 2015
Originally published on February 6, 2015 8:25 am

A couple of listeners wrote to Morning Edition on Thursday with the same idea.

"Did anyone notice that shortly after reporting on the difficulty of tracking airliners in flight, you aired a story about a gentleman in West Virginia who was able to work with Google to track fishing boats in real time?" wrote Paul Douglas from Simsbury, Conn.

In case you missed it, the plane story was about possible new standards for airline tracking spurred by Malaysia Airlines Flight 370's disappearance. The ship-tracking software was described in Chris Joyce's piece on illegal fishing. It was developed by John Amos of SkyTruth (the aforementioned "gentleman in West Virginia") and Google, using ships' automatic identification system, or AIS.

Jimmie Meyer in Sealy, Texas, had the same thought. "Seems the AIS does a great job in tracking ships," he wrote. "Why can't the AIS be used in tracking the aircraft?"

Good question!

To sort it out, we headed down the hall to talk to the Science Desk's physics guy, Geoff Brumfiel.

He explained that not only can we track ships and planes in the same way, but in many cases we actually already do. AIS tracks just ships, but there's another company — Inmarsat — that provides tracking for both ships and planes.

"[Inmarsat] used to stand for International Maritime Satellite Organization," Brumfiel says. "This was a company set up in 1979 originally as a nonprofit to track only ships. Today almost all of the world's airplanes are tracked by the same company."

So, then, why aren't we tracking planes in real time?

"Although Inmarsat provides that service, you have to pay for it," Brumfiel explains. "Kind of like you have to pay for a cable subscription even if you own a cable box.

"A lot of carriers pay for the service and they transmit their position data. But Malaysia Airlines was one of the carriers that didn't. And as a result, the position data from this missing plane — Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 — was never sent."

What's on the table now in the world of airline tracking is new regulations: "Regulations that would require this information to be sent — it would no longer be an option for the company," he explains.

While the new airline tracking regulations get hammered out, "Inmarsat has already said they're willing to offer to take data from the airplane — the position data — for free, and process that at no cost," Brumfiel says.

"So there's really very few barriers at this point" to universal plane tracking, he continues. "The antennas are in place, Inmarsat's willing to do it, it may become a regulation shortly — I think we're likely to see tracking very soon."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now to our inbox. Two sharp-eared MORNING EDITION listeners, Jimmie Meyer in Texas and Paul Douglas in Connecticut, wrote us yesterday on the same topic. On the show, we had featured a story about how hard it is to track planes. There was a Malaysia Airlines plane that disappeared last year and hasn't been found. We had another story on the show about advanced software that is used to track ships. So our listeners wondered, why can't planes be tracked the same way as ships? MORNING EDITION producer Selena Simmons-Duffin went on a mission for an answer. And she tracked down correspondent Geoff Brumfiel at NPR's Science Desk.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: OK, Geoff, hi.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hello.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So these listeners were basically noticing that the proposed airline tracking regulations that David Schaper talked about...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Planes will be required to check in every 15 minutes during normal operations, and there's an additional standard for planes in distress.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: In that case they would check in every minute. But even that sounds pretty basic in comparison to the ship tracking we heard about from Chris Joyce.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Large ships carry electronic devices that constantly broadcast the ship's location and heading.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: OK. So, Geoff, what do you say? Can we track ships and planes in the same way?

BRUMFIEL: Yes, we can. And in fact, in many cases we already do. Planes are fitted with satellite antennas. And those connect to this satellite network called Inmarsat. It's based out of the U.K. That used to stand for International Maritime Satellite Organization. So this was a company set up in 1979, originally as a nonprofit, to track only ships. Today, almost all of the world's airplanes are tracked by the same company.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: OK, so what's going on? Why aren't we tracking planes in real time?

BRUMFIEL: Well, the reason for that is that although Inmarsat provides that service, you have to pay for it, kind of like you have to pay for a cable subscription even if you own a cable box. A lot of carriers do pay for the service, and they transmit their position data. But Malaysia Airlines was one of the carriers that didn't. And as a result, the position data from this missing plane - Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 - was never sent. So this is really more a question of regulation than anything else - requiring airlines to do this. And Inmarsat's already said they're willing to take the data from the airplane - the position data - for free and process that at no cost. So there's really very few barriers at this point. The antennas are in place. Inmarsat's willing to do it. It may become a regulation shortly. I think we're likely to see tracking very soon.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: All right.

BRUMFIEL: All right.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thanks.

GREENE: That was my MORNING EDITION colleague Selena Simmons-Duffin speaking to NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. And there you have it. You ask, we answer. If you have a question or a comment about the show, you can always write us. Our email is morningedition@npr.org. You can also tweet us with your comments. We are @morning edition, @nprmontagne, @nprinskeep and @nprgreene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.