The satellite-based air traffic surveillance system Aireon has unveiled a first-of-its-kind free service that can track the last known location of aircraft in distress.

Airlines, air traffic control entities, search-and-rescue organizations and aviation regulators that register for Aireon's Aircraft Location and Emergency Response Tracking (ALERT) service will be able to obtain mapping of the last 15 minutes of flight for an aircraft in distress. Maps will include one plot per minute and a four-dimensional report including altitude, longitude, latitude and time information. 

The unveiling of the Aireon ALERT service follows Aireon's April launch of its broader air surveillance system, which is the first in world with the capability of providing real-time tracking of aircraft worldwide. As such, the ALERT system should lead to marked improvement in capabilities to locate downed aircraft over the open ocean. Limits on aircraft tracking were most famously exposed by Malaysia Air Flight 370, which disappeared more than five years ago over the South China Sea and has never been located. 

"As the operator of the world's only global aircraft surveillance system, we recognize our unique position to provide such a critical service to the aviation community and see it as our duty to provide this data to the proper authorities to assist in emergency situations," Aireon CEO Don Thoma said. 

To make use of Aireon Alert, aircraft must be equipped with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) transponders. The transponders communicate directly with the Aireon surveillance system via a network of 66 satellites deployed by the satellite company Iridium. In the U.S. and EU, aircraft will be required by 2020 to be equipped with ADS-B transponders. According to Canada's air traffic control entity Nav Canada, more 95% of North Atlantic traffic is already ADS-B equipped.

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