A satellite-based air traffic surveillance system that went live this month over the North Atlantic will track the position of planes every eight seconds, which analysts, air traffic control entities and the company that developed the system say is likely to be transformational for passenger aviation.
“We haven’t seen improvements in capabilities like this since we went from non-radar to radar,” said Pete Dumont, CEO of the Washington-based Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA), whose stated mission is to preserve flight safety and enhance the science of air traffic control.
On April 2, Aireon, a joint venture of Canada’s air navigation system provider, Nav Canada, and the satellite company Iridium, launched the first air traffic surveillance system capable of providing real-time global coverage. The U.K.’s air traffic control entity, NATS, and air traffic control organizations in Italy, Ireland and Denmark are also investors in Aireon.
The system is initially in place over the North Atlantic, where Nav Canada and NATS have dominion over all flights. As such, the service is already affecting not just flights that begin in the U.K. and Canada but also those that start in other countries, including the U.S., if they traverse the heavily trafficked North Atlantic.
Enabling the Aireon system’s global reach is the global network of 66 satellites that Iridium has deployed.
Unlike older-generation satellite networks, which typically only spanned between 65 degrees north latitude and 65 degrees south latitude, the Iridium network spans from pole to pole. Aireon has equipped those satellites with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast systems (ADS-B) that communicate directly with aircraft transponders.
In the U.S. and EU, aircraft will be required by 2020 to be equipped with ADS-B transponders so that air traffic controllers will be able to track planes with the satellite-based NextGen system that the FAA has under development. In a press release, Nav Canada CEO Neil Wilson said that more than 95% of North Atlantic traffic is already ADS-B equipped.
Speaking at an April 2 news conference, NATS CEO Martin Rolfe said that use of the Aireon system over the North Atlantic is now enabling U.K. controllers to see where aircraft are positioned every eight seconds. That compares with the existing model of air traffic control over the world’s other oceans, where pilots report their position every 14 minutes.
That change enables a variety of safety and operational improvements.
Aireon CEO Don Thoma, speaking at the same news conference, said continuous surveillance will put an end to tracking gaps while also aiding search-and-rescue missions in the event a plane goes down.
On the operational end, Rolfe said, controllers can separate aircraft on flights over the Atlantic by as few as 14 nautical miles, as opposed to 40, making airspace more flexible and providing room for continued growth in transatlantic flights, which already number more than 500,000 per year.
With the Aireon system, Rolfe added, 90% of flights are able to get the routes they want, as opposed to just 60% until now.
In addition to the North Atlantic, Aireon public relations director Jessie Hillenbrand said Nav Canada is also using the system to surveil flights over Newfoundland and in the southern portion of the enormous Edmonton Flight Information Region, which covers the large majority of western Canada and extends from the U.S. border north to the Arctic Circle.
For overland use, the network fills in gaps where there is no existing radar surveillance coverage. This fall, Nav Canada will migrate the system to the northern limit of the Edmonton region.
The system is also set to go into use this year in airspace controlled by South Africa, Iceland, Ireland, Denmark, Italy, Singapore, Curacao and Seychelles.
Absent from that list is the U.S., where the FAA has not inked an agreement with Aireon, although Thoma said the agency has been actively involved in its design and testing and began operational trials in the Caribbean last fall.
ATCA’s Dumont said he hopes air traffic control entities worldwide will sign on.
“I think it is a game-changer and has tremendous benefits,” Dumont said.
One of those benefits is expected to be a marked improvement in the ability to locate downed aircraft in the open ocean, a poignant issue, with March having marked the fifth anniversary of Malaysia Air Flight 370, which disappeared over the South China Sea.
“Nothing is going to protect us 100% from losing aircraft in the ocean,” Dumont said. “But you would hope this is going to be one of the best tools you would have.”
By Robert Silk