Tracking WFP Planes, 24/7, Across the Globe

Lionel Marre, project manager of the WFP-run
United Nations Humanitarian Air Service, shows off the new plane tracking system

How do you track planes in an area of the world where there is no air traffic control? How do you make sure that, in case of an accident, search and rescue efforts know exactly what to do?

With 30 planes up in the air at any point in time, this was a major concern for us at the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS). WFP operates in parts of the world where air traffic control is either non-existent or poorly equipped, where search and rescue capacity is minimal and where there is continual insecurity. Without constant and real-time monitoring, planes involved in accidents would just disappear. They would be noticed only hours later and Search-and-Rescue operations would be blind. 

I am happy to report that we now have a system which allows real-time monitoring from our offices in Rome. The system operates 24/7 and covers 100% of our aircraft. 

We have a screen (that’s me in front of it) that displays the location and status of all UNHAS planes, globally. Aircraft contact the central control room at take off and continue doing so every 3 minutes throughout their flight until safe landing. Should the signal for any reason disappear or flag a fault, an alarm process is activated. The last known location is recorded, checks are run and, if necessary, an emergency process is then activated. 

Increasing safety

As well as the monitoring that goes on here in Rome, each of the UNHAS offices around the world has access to the system too and each monitors its own planes. The system also provides engine and frame monitoring, so that airliners can carry out preventive maintenance work in due time, further increasing safety for aircraft and passengers.

The ability to continuously track the position of chartered aircraft greatly enhances our capacity to respond to emergency situations, ensuring quicker and more accurate Search-and-Rescue operations in case of emergency, and, frankly, reduces our stress levels a bit. 

The UNHAS cell based here in Rome has active operations in 11 countries including Sudan, Afghanistan, and its support has been crucial in the when we responded to the devastating cyclone in Myanmar. Our planes give service to 400,000 humanitarian staff every year, and carry ten thousand tons of cargo.

I’m proud of this project. It took 12 months to complete, involved 20 staff from around the organization. It’s now time for phase 2.

The next development will synchronise and unify our monitoring platform with the Humanitarian Air Service’s new worldwide ticketing and financial system. I’m looking forward to some more smart collaboration. I’ll post and update here when it is ready. And in the meantime, we’ll keep tracking…