Aireon: Test flights read loud and clear

The strategy was an ambitious one in March when the FAA, Nav Canada and Polaris Flight Systems flew planes through U.S. and Canadian airspace to put Aireon LLC’s forthcoming aircraft tracking service through its first real-world tests.

Aireon, a joint venture of the Iridium satellite company and Canada’s air traffic control provider Nav Canada, hoped the tests would verify that radio receivers on Iridium’s first batch of new satellites could accurately collect thousands of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast messages.

ADS-B messages, whose data includes an aircraft’s location and velocity, are at the heart of the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation initiative and Aireon’s business plan. Right now, those messages only flow into air traffic networks when planes are in range of an antenna tower or other planes equipped with ADS-B “in” receivers. That leaves coverage holes over the oceans and remote regions. Aireon aims to plug those gaps by collecting ADS-B messages in orbit and selling this “air traffic surveillance” service to customers such as the tracking firm FlightAware. Malaysia Airlines in April announced it would indirectly receive Aireon’s data once it is shared by FlightAware with other aircraft location providers.

One of the test flights was particularly challenging. A Bombardier “flying laboratory” jet managed by the FAA took off from Atlantic City, New Jersey, and flew over the Atlantic Ocean and through the Washington, D.C., and New York flight information regions.

“The East Coast of the United States has a huge air traffic load and most every air transport aircraft is not only transponding or transmitting the 1090 MHz ADS-B message, it’s also got another device called a TCAS [traffic collision avoidance system] that uses the same spectrum,” explains Aireon Chief Technology Officer Vincent Capezzuto.

After spending weeks analyzing the data, Aireon made an upbeat announcement on May 3. Its satellite-based network accurately decoded the messages from the test flights, keeping the
company on track to make its service operational in 2018 once Iridium finishes launching the Iridium Next satellites that will replace its existing constellation.

A test flight conducted by Nav Canada through the Montreal, Winnipeg and Edmonton flight information region posed a somewhat easier challenge, because the north is less congested. Polaris Flight Systems of Arizona made the third flight with a Beechcraft Bonanza, a plane popular among general aviation enthusiasts. The FAA has mandated that all aircraft in most U.S. airspace, including general aviation planes, must be equipped by January 2020 with ADS-B Out transmitters.

“When you introduce something like space-based ADS-B that offers a bird’s-eye view looking down, there are no gaps,” Capezzuto says, adding that the service will give rescue teams more time to respond to plane accidents, and airlines will have more data to plan efficient flights.

Seven SpaceX launches scheduled during the next 12 to 15 months will be needed to complete Iridium’s constellation for a total of 66 satellites and nine in-orbit spare satellites. The FAA is offering a $500 rebate to aircraft owners and businesses to ease the installation of ADS-B Out equipment.

Aireon: Test flights read loud and clear