[Satellite News 06-20-12] Iridium Communications surprised the satellite industry June 19 with the announcement that it would form a massive joint venture, Aireon, 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.
With a mission to deliver Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) surveillance capability to Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) around the world and their commercial airline customers, 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.
In this special contribution to Satellite News, Avionics Magazine Editor-in-chief Emily Feliz spoke with Iridium CEO Matt Desch about how the partnership came together and which aspects of the technology helped bring its partners to the table.
Avionics Magazine: How and when did you and your partners come to the decision to initiate the Aireon joint venture?
Desch: About five years ago when we started down the path of preparing for our next generation satellite system, which we call Iridium NEXT. We thought if we launch this thing it’s going to be pretty valuable space, as every satellite combined has visibility of every place on the planet. There was a concept emerging in the industry that’s now one of the hot subjects — hosted payloads. The idea would be that if you were going into space, you would rent out a little space on your satellite. And that’s valuable enough when you’re launching a satellite into geo-stationary orbit, way out over the equator. But, when you’re launching 72 satellites that cover every part of the planet all of the time that seemed to be quite valuable. So we started talking to different partners, primarily governmental, but some commercial entities, about using that space. And we’ve had all kinds of interest.
That said, about a year ago, the idea was brought up and my guys didn’t know what ADS-B was. Immediately I thought this is the right kind of fit for what we’ve been looking for. You could extend this evolving next-generation surveillance technology to the whole Earth using our satellites and it would probably be done pretty cost effectively compared to thinking you could, even if you could do build it out.
Avionics Magazine: How did you involve your specific partners?
Desch: We went to the FAA at the same time we were going out to ANSPs like NAV Canada and others. We started talking to technology partners, avionics players and airframe manufacturers and asking them if they thought we could do this. Everybody got it right away and realized how innovative this could be. It was sort of a once in a lifetime kind of shot. We were launching in 2015 and nobody else was going to launch a satellite system that could host something like this, so we only had so much time to do this but we realized it had a lot of promise. So we started building this concept than eventually became called Aireon. We hired some advisors to help create a business plan to determine what the value of the data could be. We started working with the FAA and other ANSPs, like NAV Canada, on evaluating the benefits. Now, we’ve started working with airlines to make sure they understood the solution and could get value from the benefits. The avionics partners and the airframe manufacturers were interested because they’re worried about capacity and congestion and the ability for people to even buy airplanes in 15 years if there isn’t more capacity.
Avionics Magazine: Why was Iridium Executive Vice President Don Thoma chosen to lead Aireon as its CEO?
Desch: Don Thoma really drove the initiative. NAV Canada had demonstrated some significant leadership in coming forward and saying they recognize the value in this. They wanted to be the first customer of the data and wanted to participate in the company as well. Thoma’s efforts helped bring them into ownership. We reached out to lots of aerospace companies to build the payload and support it. Exelis was a pretty natural choice with the work they’re doing on the ground with the terrestrial part of the system. We were pleased to see their enthusiasm as well and they could see how this would be very complementary to their system and wanted to be part of it. Quite a few aerospace companies wanted to build the payload, particularly those that are heavily involved in the aviation world that got the benefits fully and that was a very competitive process. Harris ended up winning it with a very innovative and smart design.
Avionics Magazine: Will there be any other onboard equipment required beyond what is needed for ADS-B to access the system?
Desch: No, in fact, that was one of the reasons we figured out very quickly that this would make so much sense. I understood the issue of equipage as it stood with ADS-B. There were mandates that were coming about the same time and we knew people were being mandated to put this on there. If we came up with an idea that required either to be changed or to be expanded for more things to be put on the airplane, it just wasn’t going to go. What we liked about this idea and what I think NAV Canada and all the others that got involved in this liked about what we were doing was taking advantage of what was already on the airplane and make it more valuable to the airlines. I think the airlines go and they can see that they’ll get more immediate benefits from NextGen ADS-B over the oceans than they might get over some terrestrial areas around the world because they can see this is an area where you can change the procedures pretty quickly and adapt to something that is pretty inefficient and make it much more efficient quickly. If you can make five lanes into 10, then you can get optimal climbs over specific defined paths over the north Atlantic. The North Atlantic is the first place this will start, but it will work anywhere in the world. That is the real benefit for any of the airplanes that you can fly in those routes.