Iridium, NAV Canada to partner on satellite-based air traffic surveillance

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Published: June 20, 2012

Iridium Communications and NAV Canada on Tuesday announced a planned joint venture to build a space-based air traffic tracking system that the companies said will cover the entire planet, including oceans and remote regions.

Financial details of the JV, called Aireon, were not revealed at a press conference in Washington DC. But Iridium and NAV Canada did outline the JV’s plans, which call for Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) receivers to be built into each of the 66 satellites making up Iridium NEXT, the satellite communications company’s next generation of satellites set to be put in orbit from 2015 to 2017.

The ADS-B receivers will provide coverage to interested air navigation service providers of all of earth’s airspace, including areas not covered by the ground-based ADS-B sensors being installed across the US as part of the country’s NextGen ATC upgrade, Iridium and NAV Canada said. This would enable much more efficient aircraft spacing, more direct routing and more efficient ascent/descent procedures, they added.

“We are providing a one-stop solution … to track and monitor global air traffic,” said Don Thoma, an Iridium executive who was named Aireon president and CEO. “This is a revolutionary platform. Every air navigation services provider around the world would be able to use it without much upfront investment.”

Russ Chew, managing partner of NEXA Capital Partners and head of FAA’s Air Traffic Organization from 2003-2007, was introduced as a senior advisor to Aireon along with Norman Mineta, the former US transportation secretary. “This is a really big deal,” Chew told reporters. “This will significantly improve operational safety in regions of the world without [modern air traffic management] infrastructure … This is truly innovative and ground breaking for all of aviation.”

Chew told ATW that the Aireon satellite network would not “replace” the ground-based ADS-B receivers being installed by the US and other countries, but would “augment” the earth-bound equipment (ATW Editors’ Blog, April 4). “Together they will provide a very powerful system,” he said.

It was also announced that Harris Corp. will provide 81 ADS-B 1090 Extended Squitter (ES) receiver payloads to Aireon to be hosted on the Iridium NEXT satellites. FAA and ITT Exelis will also provide support to Aireon, but FAA has not made any firm commitment to sign up for the Aireon traffic management information.

Iridium CEO Matt Desch said the Aireon ADS-B system is expected to be “fully operational in 2017 or shortly thereafter.” He added that the final details of the JV’s makeup will be “worked out in weeks not months.”

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