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Technology

Panasonic satellite tracking aims to put end to missing planes

NEW YORK -- At a time when lost smartphones can be found with the push of a button, many are befuddled that the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH-370 has eluded a massive search effort for more than two years.  

The aerospace unit of Japan's Panasonic is touting a new satellite-based tracking application as a technology that can ensure that no planes go mysteriously missing at sea again.

Panasonic Avionics' new application, AirMap, offered as a software update to its aircraft connectivity products, keeps airlines in constant contact with their aircraft through satellite technology. The existing radar network, which lost track of MH-370, can only trace planes that are within 150 miles of shore. 

Airlines can install AirMap via FlightLink, which offers the full GPS coverage of the Iridium satellite network, or the eXConnect in-flight broadband connectivity system covering nearly the entire globe. 

"With both eXConnect and FlightLink using the AirMap product, the airline has a requirement -- if [the aircraft] hasn't been reporting for more than 15 minutes -- to go and try and reach that aircraft," explained Matt de Ris, manager of aviation programs at Panasonic Avionics. "The airline is watching the system and aided by our alerting system. [Panasonic's] mission control center would be fielding calls from the airline if they receive an alert."

"We have a mission control center that is staffed 24/7, 365 to field calls ..." de Ris added. "There's absolutely no burden on the pilots whatsoever."

AirMap offers alert triggers that can be customized to the needs of each airline and can be set to send updates on the status of aircraft to control centers as frequently as once per minute. Severe turbulence, deviation from flight path, and sudden altitude drop can trigger alerts. If ground control receives an alert or location data indicating something is amiss, airlines can work quickly to establish contact with the aircraft through text or voice message, while receiving continuous updates on the location of the plane.

Currently FlightLink and eXConnect cover a combined 1,500 aircraft, with the company aiming to have AirMap installed in over 3,500 aircraft over the short term. 

Malaysia's AirAsia and Alaskan regional carrier Peninsula Airways are among the airlines that have opted for AirMap upgrades, with the former looking to complete installation in the entire fleet by the second quarter of 2017. Panasonic says an additional 2-3 carriers are expected to begin using FlightLink with AirMap in the fall. 

Satellite-based flight tracking is expected to become the norm in the industry, with Iridium Communications subsidiary Aireon also set to launch its own surveillance application, Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), in 2018.

Panasonic Avionics is a California-based subsidiary of Panasonic's North American division. It employs over 4,400 and operates in 80 global locations, with a customer base of 300 airlines worldwide.

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