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

SkyTruth followed the ship <em>Shin Jyi Chyuu 33 </em>during one week last month. Planes are connected to a satellite network just like ships, but the information is only collected if the airline pays for it.
Courtesy of SkyTruth via Exact Earth ShipView
SkyTruth followed the ship Shin Jyi Chyuu 33 during one week last month. Planes are connected to a satellite network just like ships, but the information is only collected if the airline pays for it.

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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Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.