Global air traffic surveillance is the answer: Iridium


Aireon, the global air traffic surveillance service that will operate via Iridium’s second generation constellation of satellites NEXT, has long been billed as a way for airlines to save billions of dollars in fuel costs because it will facilitate more direct air routes and optimal climbs, as well as allow for aircraft to be spaced closer together on high-traffic corridors like the North Atlantic.

But in the wake of the tragic disappearance of Malaysia Airlines MH370, Aireon’s ability to track aircraft in near real time via space-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B) could very well prove to be its most important feature, at least as far as the traveling public is concerned.

To enable Aireon services, Iridium will host special ADS-B receiver payloads on the 66 low-latency cross-linked Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites that will form NEXT and replace Iridium’s aged constellation. “Think of our network as a mesh in space operated by Iridium, but used by the Aireon receiver. Harris out of Florida is making that receiver, and it’s being tested,” says Iridium CEO Mathew Desch in an interview with RGN.

The first launch of a NEXT satellite is scheduled for the second quarter of 2015 “and then every four months. The first have been built and will go through a year of testing. Two will launch out of Russia, and the rest on SpaceX. The whole network will be replaced between 2015 and 2017. It’s a complete replacement of the 66 satellites.”

Aireon is a private platform that essentially rides on NEXT. “Iridium is the only system that could host something like this, and it will be almost like GPS is – a resource that can be used for other things. It will be hosted by our satellites, but it’s an independent system that will be used for real-time positioning information. It takes no capacity at all so we can still provide broadband services to ships and aircraft and people on land, all of that is completely independent of this.”

While Aireon “was created for the $6 billion to $8 billion in fuel savings that airlines will get because the FAA and Nav Canada and UK NATS will be able to provide much better air routing services”, says Desch, “with it, you happen to know where any aircraft is within a mile. What we’ve done is take a very unique network and added this important function to it. Nobody thought we’d be solving such a fundamental issue that we would bring surveillance to the whole world.”  While Desch mentions the FAA, it’s important to note that the agency has still not committed to the project for updating its oceanic air traffic management operations.

On the other hand, NATS  – which provides air traffic management services in the busy Shanwick Oceanic Flight Information Region and serves over 1200 oceanic flights per day – recently inked a 12-year data service agreement with Aireon. “They didn’t sign it to track aircraft over the North Atlantic,” says Desch, but “it’s a benefit of it, and one of the things that everyone appreciates about Aireon”.

Desch estimates that up to 60% of all flying aircraft today carry ADS-B equipment, as it provides the foundational technology for improvements to the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) in the US and Single European Sky Air Traffic Management. “That [number will grow to] be 100% in three years. So by 2017 it has to be on there, and constantly broadcasting its positioning to other aircraft and transmitters on the ground. And we’ll be able to see it on our NEXT satellites, and it is the way you can track aircraft in the future.”

He notes that aircraft will not be tracked into every airport. “We’re not getting rid of ground-based solutions. Countries will still have them around all the major airports. For instance it doesn’t replace the ground-based ADS-B NextGen system – that will remain there. But Aireon will augment that, and it will ride on our NEXT generation satellites and be hosted by it.”

In the aftermath of AF447 and now MH370, “we could do black box streaming but someone eventually will realize this [Aireon] system is coming in 2017 and there is a good reason why nobody will mandate that. What we really want is to find the black box,” suggests the Iridium CEO.

To proponents of black box streaming, Desch says,

“Go for it. If you want to send live GPS position across your Gogo network all the time, go for it, but you’ll be paying for it. Let’s see if we can get the FAA or airlines to pay for this information, and I’d say, ‘I don’t have a dog in that hunt’. If you want to do that, go ahead. When you say 2017 [for Aireon] is a long time, that is one second in the clock in the speed at which airlines or ANSPs move.

“You can transition real time position, but they won’t get people paying for it, and it won’t drive lots of people putting fat pipes on your aircraft to solve that problem. When we talked about bringing aircraft closer together and optimal climbs [provided through Aireon], airlines have written letters to the FAA, and said they want it. They are saying, ‘please we’ll pay more for this’ because they know they can save $80 to $100 per flight hour, so they’ll even pay more for it. But the real reason why it’s been such a success is that in the terminology of the airlines [that already have ADS-B kit], there is no new equipage. That [equipage] is a bad word; another certificate on the aircraft, cheapest is $30,000 to $50,000 – none of that is required. It has all been done; it will be on aircraft and doesn’t require anything [more].”

Aireon is currently a joint venture between Iridium, Nav Canada, ENAV (Italy), the Irish Aviation Authority, and Naviair (Denmark). The ANSPs “will own the majority of it”, as Iridium has “already announced we’ll dilute ourselves to 25% in the end”.