Aireon to Offer Flight surveillance through Iridium Satellites

Air traffic controllers will soon be able to get updates every second from airliners flying over oceans when a constellation of Iridium NEXT satellites reaches its final position to relay aircraft location and velocity data worldwide.

This real-time tracking from space could prevent air traffic controllers from losing track of planes in cases including Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared over the Indian Ocean in 2014. Aireon, a joint venture of Iridium and air navigation service providers including Nav Canada, aims to collect thousands of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast messages in orbit through Iridium satellites and sell the flight surveillance service. Malaysia Airlines last year announced it would indirectly receive that data through tracking firm FlightAware, one of Aireon’s customers.

“The next step for Aireon is starting commercial service for their customers, once these final satellites go into position. That’s expected to happen about April,” says Iridium CEO Matt Desch. “We’re excited for their continued growth and success as we ultimately own about 20 percent of that venture.”

SpaceX last week launched the seventh and final group of Iridium NEXT satellites to low Earth orbit, forming a constellation 75 satellites that circle the globe, nine of which will be on-orbit spares. Aireon’s flight surveillance network is aimed at increasing safety for the airline business and enabling “more efficient flight routes, more accurate arrival and departure predictions, faster emergency response times, reduced aircraft separation, a decrease in CO2 emissions and more,” the company announced in a press release.

Aircraft will transmit ADS-B messages every second to the Iridium NEXT constellation, which will relay them between satellites in orbit through a cross-linked network of antennas and down to satellite receivers where Aireon will forward them to customers around the world.

The satellites will be the first to provide air traffic controllers with these ADS-B messages that include aircraft position, speed and altitude, providing more complete flight tracking beyond the reach of ground-based radar or other planes equipped with ADS-B “in” receivers.

The FAA mandates that aircraft in most U.S. airspace, including general aviation planes, must install ADS-B Out devices by 2020 as part of its Next Generation Air Transportation initiative.

“We are now one step closer to having a clear, accurate and complete picture of the world’s airspace, including over the oceans and remote areas,” said a statement from Marion Blakey, a member of Aireon’s advisory board and a former FAA administrator.

Aireon and Iridium have tested the flight surveillance network with aircraft transmitting ADS-B messages to Iridium NEXT satellites following previous launches. The companies are already processing 13 billion ADS-B messages each month.

Iridium will also use its new satellites to sell network connections for infrastructure in the defense and maritime industries. Existing customers of Iridium’s satellite phone network will also be able to connect to the internet from an Iridium NEXT satellite if they buy a portable modem.

The flight surveillance network for Aireon customers. (Image credit: Aireon LLC)