Iridium targets global ATC capability by 2018

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Through a planned joint venture with air navigation provider Nav Canada, Iridium Communications expects to offer global air traffic surveillance starting in 2018 using its next-generation satellites equipped with automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) receivers.

Called Aireon, the service intends to provide global positioning information of aircraft to air navigation service providers (ANSPs) using 66 Iridium Next satellites carrying ADS-B receivers, the same surveillance technology mandated for US aircraft by 2020 and earlier in Europe.

Iridium expects to launch the Next constellation between 2015 and 2017, taking the system to operational status in 2018. The satellites are being built by the Thales Alenia Space joint venture and are to be launched on SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicles.

"This new capability will extend the benefits of current radar-based surveillance systems, which cover less than 10% of the world, to the entire planet," says Iridium. Involved in the joint venture are also the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), communication systems manufacturer, Harris Corporation, and technology firm ITT Exelis, provider of the FAA's ADS-B ground system in the US.

For its part, the FAA would like to have a satellite-based surveillance system in place for remote mountainous areas in the US and ocean regions starting in 2018.

The agency in November 2011 put out a request for vendors who could provide such a service. One responder was Alaska-based ADS-B Technologies, which plans to offer a satellite-based surveillance network in as early as 2014 using a constellation of 24 Globalstar satellites carrying ADS-B receivers.

ADS-B Technologies says it completed a public demonstration of its product in "deep mountain passes" in Alaska. "The tests, conducted during the third week in April, demonstrated conclusively that highly accurate, reliable and low-latency surveillance is now possible at any altitude and over any terrain from virtually anywhere on earth," it says.

Through Aireon, Nav Canada, which provides air traffic management (ATM) in the North Atlantic for 1,200 flights per day, expects to be able to pass on fuel and environmental savings to airlines through optimal routing and increased capacity while increasing safety through continuous tracking.

The combined fuel saving for airlines on North Atlantic and North and Central Pacific routes is expected to be worth $6-8 billion over a 12-year period starting in 2018, when the service becomes operational, says Iridium.

To fund the project, the venture is in the process of negotiating long-term service contracts with Nav Canada and other ANSPs and investors to generate $200 million in "one-time hosting fees" for the integration and launch of the ADS-B payloads between 2014 and 2017. Once operational the company will charge annual data fees for the service.