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Mobile Communications June 2018 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Michael Gold

Transoceanic Flight Tracking

Why is this topic significant?

Aviation authorities, rescue workers, and the public need to know where general and commercial aircraft are flying. Lack of radar coverage over the oceans is becoming an unacceptable excuse for lack of location reporting on transoceanic flights. As a result, satellites will play increased roles in safety-critical avionics.

Description

Aviation disasters, especially the MH370 incident in 2014, have stimulated changes in technologies and requirements for tracking the locations of aircraft. Apparently, no absolute deadline is in place for continuous tracking of all passenger jets. But both regulatory requirements and business trends favor use of aircraft that report their positions via satellite and broadcast channels, whether or not the craft is in range of a radar-tracking station. A worldwide regulatory requirement—GADSS (Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System)—will take effect in November 2018, when very many suitably equipped aircraft will need to report locations every 15 minutes on transoceanic flights. Starting in 2021, a similar requirement will require minute-by-minute reporting for distressed flights.

Various technologies are capable of fulfilling tracking needs, but satellite-based location systems will play major roles. Generally, private space programs are upgrading to help carriers track planes. In 2015, the World Radio Conference allocated a narrow band near 1.9 gigahertz to support satellite-based tracking of suitably equipped aircraft "located anywhere in the world." But regulations allow use of other bands.

The rules that describe which flights must comply with GADSS are arcane and have varying interpretations. Equipment requirements vary between countries and between aircraft. But some nations are mandating new avionics, and use of these devices will trigger the location-reporting requirements. According to Avionics magazine, nations including China, India, Malaysia, and Singapore have such accelerated mandates in place. According to the Bloomberg news agency, carriers that already comply with the 15-minute requirement include Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Qantas Airways, and Qatar Airways.

Implications

Airlines and private owners who might not face compliance requirements in every case, or not right away, are seeing various regulatory and business incentives to comply. Demand for Wi-Fi and other in-flight services is driving deployments of satellite-connected aircraft, and location-tracking capability seems to add only modest capital and operating costs to such deployments. For example, in 2014, Blue Sky Network reported a total cost of $20 for reporting aircraft location every three minutes during a ten-hour transatlantic flight. The company recently reiterated that it offers "hardware and software as a service" for compliance with transoceanic tracking regulations. Another interesting business case consists of the South Africa–based company Satellite Authorization Systems (SatAuth), whose original mission was to authorize bank-card purchases on transoceanic flights. After the MH370 disaster, the company branched out into location reporting.

Impacts/Disruptions

Why do many aircraft remain unequipped for tracking? Some stakeholders have indicated they face challenges to assure reliable operations. Also, controversies have erupted about whether pilots should have ability to disable tracking in case avionics overheat. (Avionics have been implicated in onboard fires, but if pilots can disable tracking, hijackers can do likewise.) In addition, new deployments and retrofits pose logistics challenges. Suitable information systems need to be in place. Onboard equipment must have appropriate safety certifications. And manufacturers already face backlogs to fit thousands of aircraft with satellite antennas and transponders (see the September 2017 Viewpoints).

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Aircraft manufacturing, avionics manufacturing, cloud services, managed services, satellite manufacturing, satellite-communications services, ground-station operations, launch services

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Wireless Power Transfers

Why is this topic significant?

A de facto standard for wireless charging pads and phones is emerging. Meanwhile, some developers continue to focus on technology for transmitting power across a distance.

Description

For some years, two proprietary magnetic-induction technologies for contact-based wireless charging of batteries have created market confusion. Various phones, cars, and furniture in homes and public places implement one standard or the other. Flagship phones from Samsung have supported both standards concurrently, including the current Galaxy S9 model. But Samsung's chargers apparently implement only one of the standards: the Wireless Power Consortium's Qi technology. Apple products lacked built-in wireless charging capability until late 2017, when the company implemented Qi in iPhone 8 and iPhone X. The move seems to have spurred the competing technology's leading proponent, PowerMat, to join the alliance of Qi promoters. As a result, members of the rival AirFuel Alliance are now at a disadvantage. However, room exists for suppliers to improve wireless-charging technology, with several players conducting further developments.

Contactless power transfers have some interesting roles in radio-frequency-identification and similar systems. ON Semiconductor specifies that its smart batteryless sensors can receive power from wireless transmitters over a maximum range of 9 meters (about 30 feet) under suitable conditions. In addition, Powercast recently obtained regulatory approvals to sell the latest iteration of its radio-frequency technology in the United States and Canada. The company says that the device supports overnight charging of batteries in headphones and game controllers from a 2-foot distance and of low-power home-automation sensors from an 80-foot distance (about 23 meters). Powercast also claims that it is actively working to integrate the device into products from two unspecified companies with "household consumer names." Development kits are available.

Large companies to watch for developments of basic technologies for wireless battery charging include Apple and Qualcomm. Additional small company players include Energous and Ossia. Also, companies that specialize in wireless charging for electric and hybrid vehicles might be relevant to future markets for handheld devices. Many large automotive and transportation-industry players are selling and developing wireless charging technology; small players with big automotive ambitions include Evatran (Plugless), Momentum Dynamics, and WiTricity.

Implications

Users can expect some improvements in wireless power in the next five years, including improved charging for devices that are misplaced on charging surfaces and improved surfaces that charge multiple devices concurrently. A medium-range goal that might be within reach could include a box or drawer that charges random assortments of devices whose placement is haphazard.

Impacts/Disruptions

Longer-term outcomes are uncertain, and the laws of physics threaten to pose persistent obstacles. But engineers do not rule out the possibility of further substantial improvements. Generally, developers must make compromises between maximum power transfer and freedom of placement of devices during charging; deliver acceptable size, cost, and efficiency; preserve electromagnetic safety; and avoid interference with radio communications.

Some players seek to charge batteries in devices that are not stationary. For example, Ossia is working on use of smart antennas that would dynamically steer power to a portable device, using frequencies near 2.4 gigahertz. In a favorable scenario, wireless power devices might become as pervasive as Wi-Fi and would provide a more or less continuous trickle charge to many devices. Such an arrangement would not provide quick charging, but a sufficient and continuous trickle might imaginably fulfill most needs for charging anyway.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Low to Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Electronic products manufacturing, discrete electronic components manufacturing, vehicle manufacturing, furniture manufacturing, advanced electromagnetics research

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: