Imagine the following: a technical incident occurs on a long-haul commercial flight. The aircraft’s computer identifies the root cause of the problem and activates a distress beacon while the plane is still en route. It sends out a distress signal, picked up by the special payloads on certain navigation satellites (including Galileo), which retransmit these signals to a ground station, called the Local User Terminal (LUT). This terminal receives and processes the warning message, calculates the position of the transmitter based on certain characteristics of the received signal, and sends this data to the Mission Control Center. The MCC then passes on this information to Rescue Coordination Centers (RCC), which are in charge of launching rescue operations by calling on the appropriate organizations. In other words, while the aircraft is still in flight, the entire rescue process is already set up.
Beforehand, a scenario of this type was unthinkable: the distress beacon was designed so that it could only be activated after a crash. Today, a study called GRICAS [Galileo Search and Rescue Return Link Improvement for a better Civil Aviation Safety] is investigating an innovative solution to improve operational Search & Rescue (SAR) systems for civil aviation… and save human lives!
Until now, the COSPAS-SARSAT* system operated via secondary payloads carried by observation satellites in low Earth orbit (LEOSAR), which will be reaching end-of-life towards 2020, and geostationary orbit (GEOSAR). A new service in medium Earth orbit (MEOSAR) will then take over this task starting in 2018, using secondary payloads mounted on GPS, Galileo and Glonass satellites, to improve performance, precision and responsiveness.
Thanks to the large number of satellites visible to a given beacon (up to 30), the MEOSAR service can indicate the position of an endangered person in less than 10 minutes (versus 2 hours for the LEO and GEO generations). Furthermore, stationary beacons or those moving at low speed can be located to within 200 meters, versus 5 kilometers previously. Another major advantage is that fast-moving beacons (typically in aircraft) can be detected and located in flight, with guaranteed accuracy, which was not the case previously. MEOSAR services will start operating by the end of 2018, and will be able to detect the location of aircraft in distress during different flight phases. And this is where GRICAS comes in.
What exactly is GRICAS?
GRICAS is a study initiated by the European GNSS Agency (GSA), within the scope of the Space section of the Horizon 2020 research & innovation program. A consortium led by Thales Alenia Space is developing innovative operational concepts to improve aeronautical SAR, by calling on the COSPAS-SARSAT MEOSAR system. The consortium submits recommendations to EUROCAE, the European organization for aviation standards, especially through an international working group involving RTCA (the U.S. aviation standards organization) and COSPAS-SARSAT. The activities of the GRICAS project are carried out within the scope of the development of an Autonomous Distress Tracking solution, as part of the EUROCAE GADSS (Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System).
The project draws on recommendations from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to facilitate the development of an autonomous warning system on aircraft, enabling the identification of distress situations in flight.
The consortium has already published a document describing an innovative and ambitious operational concept, and developed, within the scope of the MEOSAR approach, a distress beacon called ELT-DT, capable of being activated automatically or manually in flight, if a situation is detected that could cause the airplane to crash.
For example, the GRICAS ELT-DT beacon, fitted with a GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) receiver, could be triggered automatically if the aircraft stalls, thus enabling ground SAR operators to determine the position of the aircraft in distress situation. Thanks to this beacon, rescue teams can be informed very quickly, in fact before an incident occurs. From this standpoint, we can clearly state that the overall system, combining the precision location of the aircraft, and the fast deployment of rescue organizations, would be able to save people’s lives. Furthermore, the GRICAS beacon offers another significant advantage: it can be remotely activated via the Galileo Return Link, which means that even on an aircraft that has fallen off radar screens and has lost all means of communication, the beacon can be activated. This would enable the instantaneous location of the aircraft to help identify the problem, and rescue the passengers and crew. A function such as this means that we would no longer have to see cases like Flight MH370, which disappeared in March 2014. Click here to reach GRICAS website
GRICAS: revolutionizing the global SAR approach
The GRICAS study kicked off in February 2016 and will be completed in April 2018. The development of the solution relies on the capabilities offered by the MEOLUT Next solution developed by Thales Alenia Space, which offers an excellent fit with aeronautical SAR requirements. Demonstrations of the GRICAS operational concept and tests of the performance offered by the ELT-DT beacon are carried out using the MEOLUT Next active antenna, deployed in Thales Alenia Space’s facility in Toulouse.
By 2021, the COSPAS-SARSAT system will be perfectly capable of monitoring aircraft in distress, thanks to ELT-DT beacons. The technical aspects of the solution were successfully tested on a Cessna 182 in April 2017 , showing that an aircraft in flight can be located within about one kilometer. Two new series of tests are scheduled by the end of the project, including one in Toulouse. One of these two series of tests will demonstrate the possibility of remotely activating a beacon from the ground, using a Galileo Return Link message (transmitted via a Galileo satellite to the beacon), to locate an aircraft that has seemingly disappeared. The primary aim of this solution is to improve aeronautical Search & Rescue operations, via the COSPAS-SARSAT system, to save more human lives.
The partners of the project are the French space agency CNES (France’s official representative at COSPAS SARSAT), Pildo Labs (a Spanish SME with state-of-the-art technologies in aircraft systems), ELTA (a French company, global leader in aeronautical distress beacons), STMicroelectronics (an Italian company, one of the world leaders in computer chips), the air navigation safety agency for Africa and Madagascar ASECNA (Agence pour la Sécurité de la Navigation Aérienne en Afrique et à Madagascar
), and the Barcelona-Sabadell flying club. The project is also being supported by Airbus, French accident investigation agency BEA, French civil aviation agency DGAC, Moroccan airline Royal Air Maroc (RAM) and Wizz Air. Project partners
As coordinator, Thales Alenia Space is responsible for the operational concept and overall system design. It coordinates developments and flight tests, and is in charge of the dissemination of the project’s progress towards COSPAS-SARSAT, EUROCAE, EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency), ICAO, etc. Thales Alenia Space is also developing the MEOLUT Next solution (lien vers news), to better address emerging civil aviation needs. Furthermore, Thales Alenia Space was recently awarded a new Horizon 2020 project, GRIMASSE, which will study the possibility of extending GRICAS solutions to address safety and security issues in general aviation and for helicopters.
Thales Alenia Space’s role in Horizon 2020
Thales Alenia Space is one of the leading participants in the Space section of the H2020 program, which aims to foster innovation and competitiveness in this business sector in Europe. The company is strongly involved in a number of H2020 projects, as either coordinator or partner. As for GoToFly, PAMPA, SMS, ONION, HV-EPSA and now GRICAS, we will continue to keep you informed in the coming months on other new H2020 projects led by Thales Alenia Space.
The GRICAS project received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, under the terms of the subsidy agreement 687556.
* COSPAS/SARSAT is an intergovernmental organization founded by Canada, the United States, Russia and France. In operation since 1985, it provides a free global distress beacon warning and positioning service as part of global Search & Rescue systems, using the infrastructures from 43 countries worldwide. French space agency CNES is the official French representative for this organization. Today, some 2 million COSPAS/SARSAT distress beacons are used on ships, airplanes and as personal equipment during hazardous activities. More than 41,750 lives have been saved since the 1980s during some 11,700 SAR missions.