Aireon’s space based surveillance: An example of innovation in air traffic management

Launched in 2011 following a memorandum of agreement between the US FAA and Iridium Communications, air traffic management technology company Aireon is poised to activate its space based automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) network in 3Q2018.

ADS-B is a means by which aircraft, ground vehicles and other airspace users can automatically transmit and receive data usually comprising of aircraft identification and positioning data. Aireon’s technology is capable of enabling global air traffic surveillance under one common platform. Launch customers for Aireon’s tracking platform include majority owner NAV CANADA, along with UK’s NATS, Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, Curacao’s DC-ANSP and South Africa’s ATNS.

But what sets Aireon apart?

The major feature differentiating Aireon’s space based ADS-B system from traditional ADS-B is that the traditional version requires use of ground stations to communicate with aircraft. Aireon has essentially removed the need to invest in expensive ground based infrastructure, with ADS-B data able to instead be streamed via the transponders on Iridium’s satellites.

Aireon’s space based network could enable entire countries to leapfrog what was once necessary for aircraft surveillance – turn to Africa for example. As CANSO notes, Africa has a population of over 1.2 billion people, some 16% of global population but only accounts for 2-3% of air transport. By 2050, Africa will be the world’s most populous continent with 2.4 billion people. Space based surveillance would enable African ANSPs to track aircraft without the need to invest in once-necessary expensive ground based radars.

Space based ADS-B: Addressing both airspace gaps and aircraft tracking requirements

Agency for Aerial Navigation Safety in Africa and Madagascar (ASECNA) recently signed a data services agreement with Aireon, which will bring space based surveillance to ASECNA’s member states. ASECNA is one of Africa’s largest air traffic control agencies, covering 16.1 million square kilometres of airspace through six flight information regions. Its members include Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroun, Centrafrique, Comores, Congo, Côte d’ivoire, Gabon, Guinée Bissau, Guinée Equatoriale, France, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritanie, Niger, Sénégal, Tchad and Togo.

Aireon’s product however is not only suited to just air traffic providers. Malaysia Airlines entered an agreement with Aireon and data partners SITAONAIR and FlightAware, to deliver a real time, space based alerting system for tracking on all aircraft. Aireon’s space based ADS-B data will resolve any existing coverage gaps, particularly over oceanic and remote airspace where there is currently no surveillance, and the new system does not require new avionics or aircraft modifications. Additionally, Qatar Airways will be the launch customer of Aireon and FlightAware’s ‘GlobalBeacon’ product, which will make Qatar the first airline to meet ICAO 2021 flight tracking recommendations. GlobalBeacon will provide aircraft tracking at 1-minute intervals in 2018, far outperforming the 15-minute requirement in ICAO’s Global Aeronautical Distress & Safety System regulation.

Most recently, NAV CANADA and US FAA successfully trialled the system in the New York Oceanic and Edmonton FIRs. According to Aireon director of systems engineering Dr Michael Garcia, the validation exercises “exceeded” expectations, despite the Iridium’s satellite constellation not yet operating at full capacity. In the trials, over 20 Aireon system payloads received, decoded and delivered a total of 101,517 ADS-B messages, while payload footprints were covering more surface area than anticipated.

Aireon’s innovation will ultimately improve aircraft tracking in Western Countries and enable developing nations a back door to achieving identical operating standards. Untapped still are the eventual third party technologies which could use the platform as a “piggy-back” to access formerly inaccessible markets. Overall, space based ADS-B is an example of innovation in an industry perpetually resistant to change.