An in-flight aircraft performance data transmission service that promises to vastly improve on aircraft communications addressing and reporting systems (ACARS) could be in service in early 2012.
EADS's Astrium Services unit presented its Airborne Data Service (ADS) concept at the Paris air show, where it attracted much interest during the then-ongoing search for the wreckage - and black box - from Air France flight AF447, which disappeared over the Atlantic earlier in the year.
Astrium Services is currently testing the satellite system with aircraft of two commercial carriers, and expects to begin trials with a third European airline in the next few weeks.
A six-month trial will provide enough data to verify ADS's viability, but Astrium is confident that the system, being developed in partnership with Star Navigation in Canada - which developed the in-flight monitoring equipment - and using Iridium communication services is mature enough for commercial use.
Chief technology officer Eric Souleres said the system is undergoing an "intense" development phase.
ADS is principally intended to provide airlines with real-time encrypted data to improve maintenance, repair and operations planning. This will be achieved by identifying aircraft components that are not performing at optimum levels and require servicing or replacement.
As a result, the system enables in-flight visibility of performance data, and can be tuned to provide whichever measures and performance parameters an operator chooses. It broadcasts position data every minute and, critically, it can also augment black box information in emergencies.
According to Souleres, the plan is for Astrium to operate a ground station that will provide airline clients with a report on each flight.
However, if the system detects a problem that might endanger the aircraft, ADS would begin transmitting a higher quantity of information and the ground station would immediately notify the airline, which would be responsible for contacting the flightcrew.
Aircrew need no training to operate the system, as its operation would be automatic - unless they were alerted by the ground station to a problem.
Souleres said a special processor must be installed on the aircraft, which probably does not need a specialised antennae. All onboard equipment, however, is Category D, so ADS poses no certification issues.
The system is suitable for any civil aircraft and may also be appealing to military operators, he added.