The final six payloads for Aireon’s satellite-based global aircraft tracking system, built into the Iridium NEXT satellites, are due online in a matter of weeks. The company is already processing more than 13 billion aircraft position reports each month from more than three thousand aircraft. That number is expected to increase to 25 billion monthly reports as more aircraft owners equip their planes with ADS-B transmitters and the constellation comes fully online.
Keeping track of position and speed of every commercial aircraft in the sky is about to be a reality.
At first glance the new network’s value appears to be in preventing another MH370 aircraft disappearance. That certainly is a high profile incident that no one wants to see repeated, but it is probably not the most significant value proposition that Aireon brings to bear; it is just an added bonus.
Instead, Aireon expects that many other, little things will add up to deliver huge value to the global aviation community. CEO Don Thoma called attention to a number of those shortly before last week’s final satellite launch.
The benefits to customers are going to be subtle. Safety tracking is a nice to know but you hopefully never need to use that service. There’s so many subtle improvements in the ATC system that will occur. Airplanes are going to be able to take off that otherwise wouldn’t because now controllers can see them [off shore]. There will be routes that will be shorter, they’ll be able to route faster planes around slower ones. They’re going to save fuel. All these things add up to a lot of improvements in the air system.-Aireon CEO Don Thoma
Delivering on these benefits depends on cooperation at a scale that Aireon does not control. National Air Service Providers (NASP) – the companies and governments that manage air traffic around the globe – must join the party. The good news is that in some of the most congested travel corridors the commitment is in place. The North Atlantic Tracks are a prime example of where ADS-B supported tracking can dramatically improve operations. Hundreds of aircraft cross the North Atlantic Ocean every day. They fly on designated tracks with significant spacing because, among other risks, radar coverage through most of the route is nil. Space-based ADS-B tracking will allow controllers to know exactly where each plane is crossing the ocean at all times.
NAV Canada and the the UK’s NATS manage this traffic and both are now partnered with Aireon to improve their operations. NAV Canada was a founding partner while NATS was a little late to the Aireon party, but it arrived with gusto. It invested financially and operationally in Aireon, with a commitment to integrate the aircraft tracking technology. The pair are slated to begin operational trials in early Q2 2019 for the North Atlantic tracks where they share control. Canada’s Edmonton airspace will begin using the service even sooner.
Africa will also see significant participation in the Aireon ecosystem, with ASECNA recently signing on to join South Africa’s ATNS and the Seychelles Civil Aviation Authority. The service is global and so are its subscribers.
Airlines are expected to save more than $125 million annually on fuel in the North Atlantic alone as more direct and efficient routings are put into service. This translates to a massive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as well. The impact on that front will only grow as more NASPs subscribe to the service.
Ultimately, Thoma expects that adoption of the ADS-B supported navigation and surveillance will be truly global, “I think it is inevitable now that everyone will deploy it. But they’re agencies that act slowly. They want to see the whole thing up there before they pull the trigger.” Fortunately the initial dozen NASPs supporting this Aireon are showing others the way forward.