Aerospace industry is working to improve flight tracking

REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

Is it a matter of coincidence that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published two patents this week focused on aircraft navigation and communications?  These inventions, one from Boeing and one from Airbus, are just two examples of the dozens of inventions covering aircraft alert systems, satellite navigation and communications management that have been patented over the last several years. They shine a light on one of the challenges the aerospace industry is working to overcome: how to accurately track flight vehicles wherever and whenever they are.

As the tragic situation regarding Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 unfolds, many of us have had our first introduction to the technology behind transponders, ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System), flight simulators and flight management systems.  What few of us outside the aviation world knew, however, was the limitations of some of these technologies.

To gain a better understanding of the specific challenges facing the aerospace industry and new technologies they have innovated, a team of our analysts mined patent and scientific research data for clues.

Here is some of what we found, which sheds additional light on the situation in Asia and gives me hope that such circumstances can potentially be avoided in the future.

In terms of scientific research, there are a number of institutions around the world engaged in studying, researching and analyzing the field of flight/airline monitoring and tracking. Some of the leading ones include:

  • Stanford University, USA
  • DLR (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt e.V.), Germany
  • MITRE Corporation, USA
  • Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), USA
  • Ohio University, USA
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA
  • Universidad Politecnica, Spain
  • National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan
  • Beihang University, China
  • Mitsubishi Electric Corporation, Japan

Flight monitoring research is happening globally, led by the United States and with participation from Germany, Spain, Taiwan, China, Japan and others (I didn’t provide an all-inclusive list, but rather just the top performers in this field).

In terms of patent and innovation activity, the point at which research transforms into commercial viability, there has been significant growth over the last ten years. Specifically, overall volume of patent activity hovered slightly over 400 inventions in 2004. That volume has doubled in the last decade, with over 900 inventions in this field at the end of 2013. Innovation related to flight tracking, monitoring and communication devices has been on an upward climb since 2005.

The top assignees over this period include major aircraft manufacturers as well as a number of aircraft system suppliers and ancillary electronics companies. Below are the top 10 companies in this field:

  • Airbus Operations
  • Honeywell International
  • Thales SA
  • Boeing
  • Mitsubishi Electric Corp
  • Toshiba
  • Rockwell Collins
  • NEC
  • Raytheon
  • Panasonic Corp

Some of the more notable inventions and the areas they cover within this technology include:

  • Boeing, US 8676501B2, just published yesterday (March 18, 2014) and is for a “Satellite navigation using long-term navigation information”
  • Airbus, US 8676191B2, also published yesterday, for a “Method and device for managing communication channels for data exchange from an aircraft”
  • Airbus, US 8666566B2, for an “Aircraft control system for supplying aircraft position information”
  • Lockheed Martin, US 20130085661A1, for a “Method and apparatus for dynamic air traffic trajectory synchronization”
  • Avidyne Corporation, US 20120303252A1, for an “Aircraft alerting system that enters high sensitivity mode when determined position of subject is outside airspace boundaries”
  • Honeywell, US 2010837339A, for “Systems and methods of altitude determination”
  • General Electric, US 20120209515A1, for “Method for selecting meteorological data for updating an aircraft trajectory”
  • Swiss Reinsurance Company LTD, US 8244414B2, for “Avionic aviation system with an earth station for automatically eliminating operating malfunctions occurring in airplane and corresponding method”
  • Thales, US 7835825B2, for “Method for improving route and 4D prediction calculations by FMS for ATC tactical list”

And the list could go on.

Significant time, money and resources are being invested around the world to improve the tracking, monitoring and communication with and of aircraft, from both private and public sectors. Unfortunately, necessity can sometimes still be the mother of invention. Such instances of tragedy often illuminate unmet needs or new areas where technology is required.  Until we reach that goal, we must rely on our hopes and prayers for a peaceful resolution to the Malaysian Airlines mystery.

Basil Moftah is president, Thomson Reuters Intellectual Property and Science