Iridium, FAA Unveil Massive Satellite Tracking Joint Venture

[Satellite News 06-19-12] Iridium Communications will form a massive joint venture with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), NAV Canada and suppliers Harris Corporation and ITT Exelis to offer continuous satellite tracking for air traffic management agencies around the globe, the MSS operator confirmed June 19.

   The new entity, Aireon, will deliver Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) surveillance capability to Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) around the world and their commercial airline customers. Iridium Executive Vice President and Hosted Payload Alliance Chairman Don Thoma will be named president and CEO of Aireon.
   NAV Canada’s participation is subject to the completion of formal agreements, which its President and CEO John Crichton said would happen in the near future, making his company Aireon’s first customer.
   “NAV Canada and other ANSPs around the world have made significant progress in our efforts to enhance flight efficiency in oceanic airspace using today’s technologies and procedures. However, there are still significant limitations due to the absence of viable surveillance over most of the world’s oceans,” said Crichton. “These limitations ultimately waste fuel and increase carbon emissions, despite the best efforts of air traffic services personnel. Aireon will enable a quantum improvement. For that reason, NAV CANADA aims to be a major user of this new ADS-B capability, starting with the busy North Atlantic airspace.”
   Aireon’s service will use space-qualified ADS-B receivers built into each of the 66 satellites planned for Iridium’s second-generation satellite constellation, Iridium NEXT. The spacecraft for the constellation are scheduled to launch between 2015 and 2017 to enable a full service launch by the end of 2017.
   “Aireon’s new offering will enable commercial airline operations to be more efficient, safer and more environmentally friendly,” said Crichton. “We feel that this Iridium innovation is so important to the future of air traffic management – with significant transformative potential – that we have decided to become a partner in this venture, subject to the completion of formal agreements.”
   Iridium CEO Matt Desch said his company selected NAV Canada as a partner due to the fact that it manages the second largest air navigation service in the world by traffic volume. In its North Atlantic operation, NAV Canada provides air traffic management for 1,200 flights per day.
   “I am excited that Iridium will once again be able to use its unique global satellite network to expand connectivity beyond the limitations of ground-based systems,” Desch said in a statement. “This is also a big milestone for commercially hosted payloads and it will be a ground-breaking use of Iridium NEXT. Iridium is the only company with the capability and reach to enable this, and we are thrilled that our service will make air travel more efficient and safer. Aireon is truly revolutionary.”
   The ADS-B 1090 MHz Extended Squitter (ES) receivers on every Iridium NEXT satellite will complement ground-based air navigation systems currently in use by relaying position and status information of aircraft flying over oceans, poles and remote regions to air traffic controllers on the ground in near-real time.
   Thoma said this new capability would extend the benefits of current radar-based surveillance systems, which cover less than 10 percent of the world, to the entire planet.
“We have pulled together a world-class team of experts in air traffic management and communications to make this venture possible,” said Thoma. “By bringing together Iridium, NAV Canada, Harris and Exelis, Aireon will represent unparalleled experience in developing and deploying advanced air traffic surveillance systems. Together, we will create a very unique and important service, and we are poised to help the aviation industry evolve to new levels of efficiency and safety.”
   International regulations and mandates already require commercial aircraft to be fitted with ADS-B transmitters operating in U.S. airspace by 2020 as part of the FAA’s $40 billion Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) initiative to upgrade the nation’s legacy (radar-based) air traffic control system to the GPS-based ADS-B system. 
   FAA Air Traffic Vice President Chris Metts said the agency had been working with Iridium and the Aireon team over the past year to evaluate the capabilities of space-based ADS-B systems. “Aireon will enable air carriers to maximize returns on billions of dollars in aircraft avionics upgrades they are already making without the need for any additional onboard equipment,” he said. “Because the insight and control of air traffic management through space-based ADS-B is unparalleled, the FAA will be engaged with Iridium and its Aireon partners in setting the specifications and configuration of space-based ADS-B surveillance.”
   Raymond James Analyst Chris Quilty noted that the FAA recently posted a pre-solicitation notice seeking a satellite-based tracking solution to complement the FAA’s NextGen air traffic control system. “Iridium is uniquely positioned to support this effort, which could contribute more than $100 million annually within a decade.”
   According to research firm Deloitte, NextGen and other global initiatives also are extremely valuable to the aviation industry, with a projected net present value of $897 billion through 2035. 

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