Aireon’s Space-Based Air Traffic Surveillance Sees Increased Attention Following Flight 370

Air Traffic Control (ATC) room Aireon

Air Traffic Control (ATC) room. Photo Aireon

[Via Satellite 04-04-0214] Iridium’s subsidiary Aireon has received much more attention for its global aircraft surveillance program in light of the recent disappearance of Malaysia Airlines’ Flight MH370. Once over the ocean, aircraft are communicated with on a regular but infrequent basis. Using hosted payloads set to launch with the upcoming Iridium Next constellation, Aireon’s service is designed to provide data on a plane’s location multiple times per second using satellite based Automatic Dependence Surveillance Broadcasting (ADS-B).

“We are starting to get quite a lot of interest from the Air Traffic Control (ATC) organizations from a customer perspective,” Don Thoma, CEO of Aireon told Via Satellite.

Even before the Malaysia Airlines incident highlighted the importance of constant communication with aircraft, Aireon had begun to gain momentum with investors. In February, the company signed a 12-year agreement with the United Kingdom’s privatized ATC service provider NATS and received the first $50 million of a separate $120 million investment from Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs), such as Naviair of Denmark, ENAV of Italy, and the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA). The latter three ANSPs have partnered with Nav Canada and Iridium for equity in Aireon. In March, Nav Portugal also signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU), which is expected to lead to a long term full services contract.

“This is something that the world is just understanding, but that we learned back in 2009 [when we started looking into space-based ADS-B], and that the ATC community knew all the time: when you fly across the oceans, you’re not being tracked in real-time,” said Thoma.

Nav Canada remains the largest investor, having placed its $150 million into the venture in order to ensure 51 percent ownership. Nav Canada finalized its role with Aireon in 2012. The tragic events with MH370 have just brought unprecedented attention to a process that was gradually accelerating on its own.

“The world’s aircraft organizations are in the process of upgrading their air-traffic surveillance systems from a radar based technology — which is technology that was originally developed in the 1930s and deployed in the 1940s — to GPS based capability that will use an onboard GPS receiver on the aircraft to send very precise location and velocity identification information from the airplane on an extremely frequent basis,” explained Thoma. “That’s with the ultimate aim of replacing some of the radars that are currently deployed and are being maintained at a great cost.”

Aireon’s space-based ADS-B service does not require any additional modifications to airlines or aircraft. Once the Iridium Next satellite constellation is online, the service will be able to send and receive transmissions from space. This is a step beyond regular GPS services, which act as more of a one-way system by only communicating with a receiver.

“When you use GPS, all you know is where you are,” said Thoma. “You need a second system to be able to transmit that location information back to somebody else. You don’t send data through a GPS system, the GPS satellite network operated by the Air Force just sends out signals that are used by a GPS receiver to calculate its position.”

Recently, Aireon completed the qualification testing for its receiver payload. The company has since begun manufacturing of 81 ADS-B 1090 Extended Squitter (ES) receiver payloads, designed by Harris Corporation, and Exelis is on a contract to construct relevant ground systems.

Iridium Next is scheduled to begin launching in 2015, and Aireon aims to have its service fully operational by 2018. As for the hypothetical questions regarding Flight 370 that everyone is asking, Thoma answered:

“Even though we don’t use ACARS, and would use a completely separate transponder, if someone were to turn off the ADS-B transponder, you would basically have the ability to know on a very precise basis the last point of transmission from the aircraft, but future transmissions you would not receive,” he said. “The impact would be, it would significantly reduce the search area for an aircraft.”

Until Aireon’s air traffic surveillance system is online, one can only hope that what has happened with Flight MH370 never happens again.

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