When IATA’s expert industry Aircraft Tracking Task Force (ATTF) tabled its tracking report to ICAO last month, it steered well and truly clear of endorsing any specific aircraft tracking supplier or solution. However, the group did highlight global ADS-B and “space-based systems” as among the initiatives to be explored in the next three years.
It probably doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that Aireon – which is poised to launch space-based air traffic surveillance – feels well-positioned to fill this need in 2017, when its platform is expected to be on line, and its so-called Aircraft Locating and Emergency Response Tracking (Aireon ALERT) service, being offered free-of-charge, 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.
Additionally, though a variety of new satellite ventures are in the offing – from SpaceX to OneWeb – Aireon feels confident it won’t face a serious competitive threat for many years.
Aireon VP of sales and marketing Cyriel Kronenburg tells RGN that the biggest value proposition for Aireon – and specifically ALERT – is it’s “a free technology” insofar as airlines are already being mandated to install ADS-B equipment, and Aireon has committed to making historical track data available through the “public service” that is Aireon ALERT. “And I think that’s recognized by IATA.”
So regardless of what happens with ADS-C, ACARS or streaming flight recorders in the aftermath of the tragic disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, he says, “I think global ADS-B will be for everybody and I think that is what was recognized.”
Did the ATTF’s medium-term recommendation to study ADS-B and “space-based systems” come as a surprise to Aireon? “We participated as an industry in the initial phase of the report, and we had seen some drafts, but had not seen the final version,” says Kronenburg. “I think the final version is fairly good, a strong document, and shows people how to move forward and start making this solution actually happen. The next step is ICAO picking up on a lot of the recommendations made.”
Some industry stakeholders and observers believe the report could have been stronger. In the near term, ICAO is expected to propose a new standard requiring commercial aircraft to report their position every 15 minutes. “Oceanic position reporting every 15min at 470kt would narrow your potential search area to an awful lot of water,” notes Flightglobal air transport editor David Kaminski-Morrow.
But Aireon believes ICAO will follow the ATTF’s recommendations to further improve aircraft surveillance over the next three years, and that space-based ADS-B is the logical choice. “They take a fairly pragmatic approach to these things and a lot of the recommendations in the report sort of match developments that are ongoing with ICAO anyway with its global navigation plan, so I don’t think ICAO will have a problem endorsing that solution. We’re going to work closely with ICAO to make sure that is part of the package they will adopt,” adds the Aireon executive.
He also believes the ATTF’s report will help convince the US FAA to implement Aireon across its oceanic control zones (Pacific and South Atlantic). 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.
Meanwhile, says Kronenburg, “The [recent] budget that was passed; there was specific language that makes funds available to FAA to make them ready for space-based ADS-B so that gives them an additional drive as well to move this forward. On the terrestrial side in the US, the mandate and ground coverage of ADS-B will make it natural follow from that to do the same for the oceanic airspace.”
It’s safe to say a lot is riding on Iridium’s flawless execution of the NEXT program, including the launch of new L-band satellites that will replace a constellation that has grown very long in the tooth and support the Aireon service. Iridium is a JV partner in Aireon. “So far we’re still on track for a 2015 launch [of the first satellite] and still confident that by the end of 2017, we’ll have a fully operational system for ANSPs to start using. We had the first payload assembled on the satellites; the first have the payload on it right now at our Arizona assembly facilities, and we’re on track,” says Kronenburg.
Furthermore, though the likes of SpaceX, OneWeb (backed by the Virgin Group and Qualcomm), search engine giant Google, and social media behemoth FaceBook are bandying about ideas for offering connectivity to the masses via, respectively, a global network of small satellites (SpaceX and OneWeb), high-altitude balloons and solar-powered drones – and indeed Google is eyeing a potential big investment in SpaceX’s plan – Kronenburg says, “I don’t think there are any realistic alternatives [to Aireon] coming on the market let’s say in the next 15 years or even more. It’s very expensive to launch a constellation of satellites. The venture of Aireon is going to be successful mostly because we’re using another constellation as a hosted payload. That keeps the cost for us down because we’re not burdened with the cost of a constellation. So for any competitor to launch something similar…well, there is nothing being planned at the moment, so we’re not too concerned with that at the moment.”
Satellite communications expert Peter Lemme says the next five years will see some big developments in terms of new constellations, but it remains to be seen if these new operators intend to play in aviation in a big way. In reference to whether they may enter the inflight connectivity market, Lemme says, “I have no idea how much of their target market is stealing from existing service providers, eg Ku-band FSS, or legitimately focused on new connections, the underserved [in rural areas, for instance]. The latter is the front story, the former the back story that could create ripples. If they talk about aviation as a priority, they are focused at stealing revenues.”
But as far as being a competitive threat to Aireon, Lemme notes, “There won’t be 1090 receivers on these [new satellites].”