General Dynamics & Iridium partner to offer ADS-B service

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General Dynamics has forged a joint venture with Iridium to offer satellite-based communication services for aircraft equipped with automatic dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B) systems.

General Dynamics satellite communications services product manager Michel Gelinas says the company sees a role for Iridium in supplementing ADS-B services provided by ground stations. ADS-B is being tested in several countries but is supported entirely by a network of ground stations. Gelinas says Iridium could allow operators using ADS-B to extend the coverage to areas that cannot be supported by ground stations.

“I see satellite as a complement, not a replacement, to ground infrastructure,” he told the International Advanced Aviation Technologies Conference yesterday in Anchorage, Alaska.

“Iridium is there, it is working very well and it provides global coverage.”

Remote mountain areas that are hard to access and lack power lines are ideal for Iridium, according to General Dynamics. For example, Iridium could support the upcoming second phase of the US FAA Capstone program, which involves extending ADS-B services to mountainous southeast Alaska.

The USA and other countries are already considering satellites to support possible expansion of ADS-B, with Iridium one of several potential providers. So far, the FAA has limited its Capstone test program, which involves ADS-B and other technologies, to Alaska. Regional FAA administrator Patrick Poe says the agency has plans so far to install only one ADS-B ground station in the continental USA, to support a trial planned for Arizona.

“But there is another option,” he adds. “Maybe we could go directly to satellites.”

Gelinas also envisions ADS-B users accessing Iridium over oceans, allowing ADS-B-equipped aircraft to stay tuned into the system worldwide. “Iridium is the gap filler to make ADS-B ubiquitous,” he says.

Gelinas is confident that General Dynamics can make Iridium affordable to aircraft operators. The service initially was geared to business travelers and priced at $7 per minute. But the original Iridium went bankrupt in 2000 and the restructured company has reduced the cost of the service. The new Iridium has tried to target the aviation industry since last year, mainly with a system to monitor cockpit voice and flight data.

“The new company has a different approach,” Gelinas says. “As General Dynamics, we’re working closely with Iridium and Boeing to be a system provider for the customer.”

He says user costs are also being reduced through a new process identified by General Dynamics engineers that will allow up to 30 aircraft so share a single Iridium channel. Aircraft will access the channel at different times based on their flight path, while still leaving the line open for emergencies.

“You can decouple the space charge several times and hence you can make if affordable,” Gelinas says.