Air Canada 777 flight deck with captain and first officer in view. Iridium will be able to support safety cockpit communications via Iridium Certus

Nearing safety clearance Iridium to transform pilot user experience


Iridium Communications has hit several key milestones as it works to ensure its global Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite-powered next-gen Certus service is validated for aircraft safety communications, and indeed as the satellite operator prepares to transform the pilot user experience, Iridium executive director of aviation John Peterson revealed to Runway Girl Network at the Satellite 2024 conference and exhibition in Washington D.C.

With six Certus terminals approved and currently being installed on aircraft to facilitate cockpit and cabin communications and other applications, Iridium Certus-communicating hardware will already be on board a variety of aircraft types when Iridium receives final clearance from the US Federal Aviation Administration to support FANS-1/A, the Future Air Navigation System, which enables direct datalink communications between pilots and air traffic control.

“We had a goal last year for our Certus Aviation Safety Program — that’s going to be what replaces short burst data for safety product for airlines and everyone else around the world. So, we had to get that network path into production by December of last year because the terminals are getting done, and we hit that goal. So that means that data can be generated from the lab; it can be run through our production satellite network; it can be run through our production gateway; it can go to ARINC or SITA and they can provide an acknowledgement back,” said Peterson.

What this means for aviation is that the end-to-end network is “completely done”, he said, and it “meets the specification” for required communication performance RCP 240 seconds, which defines a performance standard for operational communication transactions.

This year, Iridium’s big goals for commercial aviation are, firstly, to get TSO, Technical Standard Orders done, he said. “We have certified terminals that can be installed in commercial, but now I need a TSO so that they meet the MOPS,” minimum operational performance standards requirements.

“So, the first one out of the gate looks like it’s going to be Collins later this year. So, we’re very excited about that. The others to follow later in the year. We’re hoping that by the middle of this year their TSO is done and then we will be in flight trials by the end of the year. And then at that point it’s 75,000 data points and we’re done,” Peterson continued in reference to the data points required by the FAA for safety clearance. A ‘late 2024’ timeline is later than originally hoped for Certus safety clearance but Covid and its impact on industry and the supply chain created a delay.

From a satcom perspective, Iridium competes with Viasat London (formerly Inmarsat) in the cockpit, as their current respective L-band satellite links are safety-certified for FANS datalink messaging, ACARS, safety voice, and other cockpit comms functionality. But when Iridium Certus replaces the legacy Iridium service in commercial aviation, the LEO satellite operator will see itself more directly competing in the next-gen safety services realm against geostationary (GEO) satellite operator Viasat London’s portfolio, as Certus will be formally cleared to support critical comms over oceans.

Airlines can choose from three Iridium Certus pipes: Certus 100, 200 or 700 with corresponding Kbps speeds. Everything from messaging, position reports, GADSS flight tracking, weather information and more can move over the LEO network “lightning quick”, assured Peterson, explaining:

Not only are the pipes much bigger because you can have a 100 to 200 or a 700 Kbps pipe, but the overall throughput is so much better, just the protocol of background IP and how it works over our network and everything else. The way ACARS works is it’s like blocks of ice in a block tray. You get one block of ice out and you got to give it an acknowledgement to get the next block of ice out. Now a block of ice is 350 bytes. The nature of how legacy services worked is you would send one block of ice out and tear the network down. And then when the acknowledgement came back you would bring the network back up and send the other block and send the message back. Because that’s old technology; that’s just the nature of how it works.

The nice part about Certus is if there’s a block of ice to go out, the network stays open and listens and then the acknowledgement comes right back. We’re Low Earth Orbit, so the latency is very low. So, the throughput rate that we can get the data to go through is ten times faster. So that means when a pilot sends a message, the acknowledgement will be almost instantaneous, which they’re not used to. That’s not the way it works typically today in aviation over your VHF data systems, satcom systems.

So, we’re bringing a whole different level of pilot user experience, so we’re excited about that as well.

Notably, even as the Iridium aero satcom service improves, the cost to transmit that data will be far less, he said. Peterson reckons that the combination of higher throughout and lower cost is going to “finally open up the real-time analytics world, because right now everything’s post-flight analytics; you just can’t cost effectively get avionics data off the aircraft. So, they wait till they get to the ground.”

Indeed, to provide weather updates to the aircraft every 15 minutes would currently cost “hundreds and hundreds of dollars per tail per month”, said Peterson, but “now they can do it for dollars per tail per month”, he continued. “And that, I believe, is going to lead into the next level of, ‘well, what else can I take off the airplane that helps me operate the mission more efficiently?’

“So what is the rating on the FMS and how are they flying the aircraft? What is the trending information on the key systems on the aircraft? Then there’s always the fault code stuff, which everyone gets excited about fault codes but you can do that over the more expensive systems; they happen so rarely, it’s not that big of a deal. And then what is the dialogue we want between dispatch and crew in order to have better flights? So, there’s a whole bunch of information that is operations-level information, up to 40 megabytes a month that they’re currently not pulling off the aircraft because it’s too expensive until after the aircraft lands. So, if you could pull all that information off in real time for less than it costs to do it today, would that be worth it? Untangling that yarn ball of opportunity is going to be fun because it’s a new value proposition to them.”


Recent Viasat GEO satellite anomalies, including the April 2023 temporary outage of an Inmarsat-now-Viasat safety satellite serving the Asia-Pacific region, also add to the LEO-based Iridium Certus value proposition, he suggested.

“I was just talking to a rather large commercial OEM and one of the things that we were talking about was one, how do we get the cost of satellite down for airplanes and safety services and things like that. But the other thing we were talking about was [ICAO flight-tracking requirement] GADSS. How do you know you’re going to be connected?

“And so, the thing that I wanted to let them know, is I said, ‘listen, in the nature of our network, if the worst thing that could happen happened, and we lost a satellite, [it would be] six minutes. I have a six minute hole in my network for 24 hours because by then the replacement satellite took its spot. Because our satellites are moving at, what, 60,000 miles an hour. Continuously. And our satellites are constantly moving and the Earth is rotating under them. So if the worst thing happens, it’s a six-minute hole, that’s it. And then the next satellite picks it up, and that’s at the most, it’s a six-minute hole. If you happen to be between them, the other satellite will just pick you up because that one would not be available. So the worst case scenario, six minutes. So that’s another thing that’s very reassuring about our service is the fact that it is always available.”

Iridium now has 14 spares in orbit, and recently announced a five-year extension to its network meaning it will get another 20+ years out of its NEXT-branded next generation L-band satellite network. “The five year extension, it affects the financing and everything else for aviation, that’s just pure confidence,” noted Peterson.

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