Raymond James analyst Chris Quilty, a long-time vocal supporter of Aireon, believes that despite the FAA’s own funding concerns for the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), it’s a “near certainty” that the agency will ultimately sign on to Aireon. “The only question is when,” he says.
A joint venture between Iridium Communications and ANSP investors, Aireon is working to create a platform capable of tracking ADS-B-equipped aircraft around the globe in real-time over Iridium’s NEXT satellite constellation in the 2017/2018 timeframe.
“The Canadians, Danish, Irish, Italians, and British have all signed long-term service agreements with Aireon, ensuring that the North Atlantic air corridor will be Aireon-enabled. Is it therefore possible that the FAA could refuse to implement Aireon across its oceanic control zones (Pacific, South Atlantic),” says Quilty.
“Furthermore, given the air safety considerations raised by MH370, is it conceivable that a future FAA administrator would put him/herself in the position of having to sit before a congressional committee following a future air disaster and explaining, ‘yes, we did have access to a global air traffic tracking capability (i.e., Aireon), but we didn’t want to spend $100 million/year for the service’.”
Talks between Aireon and the FAA have been “constructive”, says Aireon VP of marketing and sales Cyriel Kronenburg, who joined Aireon in June after working as global head of air traffic control (ATC) charges for the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
“What we’d like to see is a full commitment to using the system going forward, and I think that’s something that – [considering] the current fiscal situation that the FAA is in – will require a little more interaction with them. But we’re confident the FAA is positive about Aireon’s performance and system, and working closely with them to make it happen in the US,” Kronenburg tells RGN.
The FAA recently released an executive report to Congress concerning implementation of NextGen, in which it highlighted the F&E funding requested for FY2015-17 to continue supporting NextGen’s roll-out. This week the agency said it would partner with industry to create a working group aimed at addressing potential barriers for operators to adopt ADS-B.
Though the FAA wants to have ADS-B infrastructure operational in the United States by the end of 2014 – and has mandated ADS-B Out compliance by January 1, 2020 – it’s difficult to ascertain when the FAA might possibly go a step further and embrace Aireon for space-based ADS-B across its oceanic control zones.
One area that needs to be addressed with the FAA, says Aireon’s Kronenburg, “is an understanding that we’re working towards integrating the Aireon signal into the FAA system. That is something we’re currently undertaking, but it will require the FAA to put in additional investment to ensure the signal leads to a change in operations. In other words, putting it into Advanced Technologies and Oceanic Procedures (ATOP) is one, but you need to make sure the signal is capable of performing. This requires an investment, and that is one area where the airlines are very much on Aireon’s side; they’re calling for this investment because it will deliver real benefits.”
The FAA could not be immediately reached for comment.
Meanwhile, Aireon is working to thrash out an agreement with the Agency for the Safety of Aerial Navigation in Africa (ASECNA) to bring its service to areas in Africa without surveillance. “We are closely engaged with ASECNA in trying to come to a memorandum of agreement on exploring the introduction of Aireon in the areas of Africa currently without surveillance,” says Kronenburg. “From the start of the Aireon project, we’ve been very confident that we will add a layer of safety to the current ATM environment and that is one of the primary goals. If you look at the African continent, there are large areas with no surveillance at all. So just adding a layer of surveillance there, adding a layer of safety and visibility over airspace is something we value. And we are currently working with our partners to determine what that should look like.”
Aireon is also understood to be exploring a similar arrangement in South Africa, but Kronenburg declined to comment.
Following the tragic disappearance of MH370, Aireon – like Inmarsat before it – offered to provide free tracking. Its so-called Aireon Aircraft Locating and Emergency Response Tracking (Aireon ALERT) service will allow rescue agencies to request the location and last flight track of any 1090 MHz ADS-B equipped aircraft flying in airspace currently without surveillance. “We started thinking internally, and asked ourselves – would we be able to give that information? Would there be legal requirements? So we started that research, and said, ‘it would be the right thing to do’. We’ll have global data on every aircraft that is ADS-B equipped; we want to make sure we can give that information to the appropriate authorities. That will require a 24/7 phone number and protocols, and we’re going to start developing those, and the capability is free of charge.”
“This doesn’t do anything to our commercial business,” he adds. “The way the ADS-B signal works by nature, it’s a broadcast from an aircraft, so anyone with a receiver can pick up that signal, so once our satellites are [up]…we can see every ADS-B signal, regardless of whether or not we have a contract with a specific state to resell that data. Regardless of whether a specific airspace is a customer of ours, we’d still be able to see that aircraft.”
The Aireon program remains on track. The first of 81 ADS-B receiver payloads being built by Harris Corp has been delivered to Orbital Sciences Corp in Gilbert, Arizona, where Orbital is responsible for assembly, integration, test and launch support phases for Iridium’s NEXT satellite constellation. “With only 28 months from contract award to the delivery of the first payload, the Harris team has done a phenomenal job in not only building and qualifying a full payload in record time, but also exceeding all technical and performance milestones necessary for providing a robust surveillance capability for air traffic management,” says Aireon president Don Thoma. “This achievement is a key building block towards a successful first launch in 2015 and moves Aireon one step closer to having a fully deployed space-based ADS-B surveillance system available for the aviation community beginning in 2017.”
An Aireon spokeswoman notes that the launch of the first Iridium NEXT satellite “is on track for June and the first two satellites will be launched via launch partner Kosmotras”. During a conference call yesterday to report better-than-expected third quarter results, Iridium also affirmed first launch in “mid-2015”.