air traffic controller

Worldwide aircraft tracking system goes live

Image credit: NATS

A real-time, truly global air traffic surveillance system has become fully operational and is in trial use over the North Atlantic, in what its backers call ‘a historic milestone’ for the aviation industry.

Current ground-based surveillance covers just 30 per cent of the globe, so civil aviation authorities, commercial carriers and other stakeholders rely on position updates every 10-14 minutes to track aircraft outside of radar coverage.

However, the new satellite-based Aireon service can provide real-time updates on every aircraft carrying Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) equipment, anywhere on Earth.

Regulations requiring ADS-B fitment on aircraft have already been implemented throughout the world, coming into effect in the United States in January 2020 and in Europe in June 2020. Other countries are in the process of drafting mandates for implementation over the next few years.

The Aireon system is expected to reduce overall flight safety risks by approximately 76 per cent in the North Atlantic, according to a joint analysis by NAV Canada and the UK’s NATS, which are the first air navigation service providers (ANSPs) to use the service. Improved visibility and control over previously un-surveilled airspace – especially across oceanic regions – will allow airlines to fly routes at optimal speeds and levels, delivering expected cost savings of up to $300 per transatlantic flight, plus reducing carbon dioxide emissions by two tonnes per flight, based on an analysis conducted by NATS and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

Use of the system over the Atlantic allows air traffic controllers to trial the reduction of aircraft in-trail separation distances from 40 nautical miles (nmi) to as little as 14nmi, making the airspace more flexible, predictable and able to accommodate future growth.

“To know the position, speed and altitude of every ADS-B equipped aircraft in oceanic airspace in real time is a transformational change to how our controllers manage air traffic,” said Neil Wilson, president and CEO of NAV Canada. “This system provides an immediate boost to aviation safety and airlines will benefit from more fuel-efficient routings and flight levels. Over 95 per cent of the North Atlantic traffic is already ADS-B equipped, so the fuel savings, along with the reduced carbon dioxide emissions, will be attained very quickly.”

Aireon’s ADS-B payloads are hosted on the Iridium NEXT satellite constellation, the final deployment of which took place on 11 January 2019. After receiving control of the final six ADS-B payloads from Iridium on 7 February, the company completed payload testing, validation and calibration stages before launching the full system into operation.

“The revolutionary impact of the real-time location data and historical tracking information of Aireon’s space-based ADS-B data will create innovations that we have not even imagined,” Don Thoma, Aireon CEO, declared at the system launch. “The opportunities for comprehensive and continuous benefits for the whole aviation community are at our fingertips.

“We would not be able to achieve this without our dedicated investors, NAV Canada, Iridium Communications, NATS, Enav, the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) and Naviair, and our partners and launch customers. This is a great day for us all.”

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