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Satellite data links to bring European air traffic management up to date

The European Space Agency awards Inmarsat a contract to develop a satellite-based data link communications system for air traffic management

Satellite services provider Inmarsat has been awarded a contract by the European Space Agency (ESA), to deliver a next-generation satellite-based data link communications system to enhance air traffic management (ATM) across Europe.

The ESA hopes the joint initiative will help air traffic controllers optimise use of airspace and increase airport capacity, as well as reduce flight times, fuel consumption and CO₂ emissions.

Under the Iris Service Evolution programme, Inmarsat will take the lead of a consortium of 30 aviation companies to develop a technical, commercial and operational roadmap for air traffic communications in Europe.

Those signed up to the consortium include the UK’s air navigation services provider Nats, aircraft builders Airbus and Boeing, and Italian flag carrier Alitalia.

“Air traffic management is under great pressure and there is no doubt that the digitalisation of cockpit communication is a vital building block of the future. This will open the door for airlines to truly benefit from enhanced data utilisation,” said Inmarsat Aviation president Leo Mondale.

The Iris programme will bring Inmarsat’s 25 years’ experience of providing satellite data link services in oceanic areas to bear in continental airspace for the first time.

Flight plans

The contract calls for the consortium to use satellite technology to improve aeronautical data link services, enabling flight plans to be updated in-flight, which will be a key enabler for the initiative’s main goals.

It builds on a precursor contract handed to Inmarsat in November 2014, to develop an initial set of services to complement the existing congested terrestrial data link services.

Conceived as a short-term fix for Europe’s ATM needs, the precursor contract is supported by Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband Safety (SB-S) satellite comms system.

The first test flight using the stopgap system took place on 23 February 2016, using an Airbus A330 flying between Toulouse and the Balearics. It performed Initial 4D (I4D) flight path control and Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) with the Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre, and tested handover between Inmarsat satellite spot beams.

The new contract is expected to support i4D and CPDLC in two years. It will ultimately evolve to support Full 4D and operate in a secure multi-link environment with future terrestrial data links. This means air traffic controllers will be able to work more efficiently by synchronising aircraft trajectories between air and ground.

Improved safety

Magali Vaissiere, director of telecoms and integrated applications at the ESA, said the Iris programme would bring safer ATM to airlines and passengers.

“It is an outstanding example of how co-operation between commercial partners and institutions can create effective technical systems that improve our every-day lives and make European companies more competitive in the world markets,” she said.

Giancarlo Schisano, chief operating officer (COO) at Alitalia, which is currently the only airline participating in the programme. said satellite comms were a natural development for the aviation sector.

“We will make our know-how available for this key project, which will revolutionise the industry,” said Schisano.

“[This] will lead to concrete benefits to airlines and their travellers due to reduced flight times, more savings on fuel consumption and even more advanced flight safety.”

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