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Progress towards a propagation prediction service for HF communications with aircraft on trans-polar routes

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Commercial airlines began operations over polar routes in 1999 with a small number of proving flights. By 2014 the number had increased to in excess of 12,000 flights per year, and further increases are expected. For safe operations, the aircraft have to be able to communicate with air traffic control centres at all times. This is achieved by VHF links whilst within range of the widespread network of ground stations, and is by HF radio in remote areas such as the Polar regions, the North Atlantic and Pacific where VHF ground infrastructure does not exist. Furthermore, the Russian side of the pole only has HF capability.
Researchers at the University of Leicester and at Lancaster University have developed various models (outlined below) that can be employed in HF radio propagation predictions. It is anticipated that these models will form the basis of an HF forecasting and nowcasting service for the airline industry.
Propagation coverage predictions make use of numerical ray tracing to estimate the ray paths through a model ionosphere. Initially, a background ionospheric model is produced, which is then perturbed to include the various ionospheric features prevalent at high latitudes (in particular patches, arcs, auroral zone irregularities and the mid-latitude trough) that significantly affect the propagation of the radio signals. The approach that we are currently
adopting is to start with the IRI and to perturb this based on measurements made near to the time and area of interest to form the basis of the background ionospheric model. This is then further perturbed to include features such as the convecting patches, the parameters of which may also be informed by measurements. A significant problem is the high variability of the high latitude ionosphere, and the relative scarcity of real-time measurements over the region.
Real time measurements that we will use as the basis for perturbing the IRI include ionosonde soundings from, e.g. the GIRO database, and TEC measurements from the IGS network. Real-time modelling of HF radiowave absorption in the D-region ionosphere is also included.
The geostationary GOES satellites provide real-time information on X-ray flux (causing shortwave fadeout during solar flares) and the flux of precipitating energetic protons which correlates strongly with Polar Cap Absorption (PCA). Real-time solar wind and interplanetary magnetic field measurements from the ACE or DSCOVR spacecraft provide geomagnetic index estimates used to model the location of both auroral absorption (on a probabilistic basis) and the proton rigidity cutoff boundary that defines the latitudinal extent of PCA during solar
proton events (SPE). Empirical climatological models have been uniquely adapted to assimilate recent measurements of cosmic noise absorption (at 30 MHz) from a large array of riometers in Canada and Scandinavia. The model parameters are continuously optimised and updated to account for regional and temporal variations in ionospheric composition (and hence HF absorption rate (dB/km)) that can change significantly during the course of an SPE, for example. Real-time optimisation during SPE can also improve estimates of the proton rigidity cutoff and improve the modelled ionospheric response function absorption vs. zenith angle) at twilight.