When Malaysia Air Flight 370 disappeared over the Indian Ocean in 2014, it had flown far beyond radar range. Under a new space-based air tracking system, no plane would ever be off the grid that way—thanks in part to a reconfigurable radio developed with NASA.
NASA uses powerful radio transmitters that allow us to see everything from pictures of cryovolcanoes on Pluto to tweets from the International Space Station (ISS). In recent years, the Agency decided that to send larger quantities of data back and forth faster, it needed higher-frequency radios that can be reprogrammed from a distance using software updates.
Through a 50/50 cost-share cooperative agreement, Glenn Research Center developed one with Harris Corporation, and the final product flew in the ISS SCaN Testbed and was honored with an R&D 100 Award.
The Palm Bay, Florida-based company used what it built to create its AppSTAR radio, which quickly became a popular seller in part because of how easily it can be reconfigured for new applications.
Basically, “this is a box, and inside there are a bunch of cards that plug in,” explains Harris program manager Kevin Moran. “So when a customer has a different mission, we only have to change out a subset of the hardware.”
One early contract with a huge potential impact is with Aireon LLC, which is sending the radios into orbit on Iridium’s new satellite constellation.
These AppSTARs are programmed to receive signals from new airplane transceivers called ADS-B, which automatically send out the flight number, location, heading, and other flight details. Currently, they require line-of-sight to land-based receivers—so many planes flying over the ocean and other remote areas can’t be tracked at all.
Putting the receivers into orbit on the NASA-derived AppSTARS solves that problem. “Within seconds you can keep track of all the aircraft in the world,” explains Harris systems engineer Jeff Anderson. The first iteration of the system is scheduled to go live in 2018.