Innovative Aviation Tracking System

By: Sandra Hickethier

Taking to the skies for the first time can be unnerving, especially if you’re the one in the pilot’s chair. But for students at Walla Walla University, the skies have become a bit safer.

As of this year, the WWU technology department’s aviation program has begun to use a satellite tracking program called the Spidertracks system. Using a small unit that sits on the dashboard of an aircraft, the system allows flight instructors to keep track of the aircraft’s location, speed, and altitude at any given moment.

In the past, the aviation industry did not have a system in place for live aircraft tracking. Instead, it used a standard system of filing a flight plan with information such as the aircraft’s route and estimated duration. This combined with radar tracking had worked well to keep track of various flights to and from an airport.

But this system did have its failings. For one, it was not always available, and when it was, it was not always consistently used. And even when it was used, the system did not guarantee a quick rescue if a plane did happen to crash.

“Air traffic control radar has limited ability to see aircraft in the North West, especially in the mountains of Oregon and Idaho,” said Michael Stratte, senior aviation major and certified flight instructor for the university.

“On average it takes 30 hours or more to determine an aircraft is actually lost, initiate search and rescue, and rescue the downed pilot and passengers,” said Anthony Remboldt, 25 director of aviation training at WWU. “Chances of survival go down dramatically after 24 hours.”

A satellite tracking system, in comparison, alerts dispatch immediately, and allows them to begin searching within a very small radius. “This essentially takes all the guess work out of the search and rescue,” Remboldt said.

“I like Spidertracks,” said Tyler Shupe, junior aviation management major and certified flight instructor for the university. “If we were ever to have something go wrong and need people to find us, they will know the exact (within a few meters) location of where we are."

The aviation program had researched satellite systems in the past, but this year was the first time it put effort into moving into a new system. “This is in part due to recent experience with this system during my time working in Alaska where we use the Spidertracks system,” Remboldt said. “Spidertracks is one of a few approved systems required by law for government work, which my company in Alaska does quite a bit of.”

The Spidertracks system originated in New Zealand, when a helicopter pilot crashed and wasn’t found for two weeks. Two aviators set out to create a system that would ensure the safe return of missing aviators in hours instead of weeks. They created the system in 2005, and now Spidertracks is used worldwide to ensure the safety of students and professionals alike.

Published February 10, 2013

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Last update on October 22, 2013