Space-based ADS-B provider Aireon has taken full control of its ADS-B receiver installed on an Iridium NEXT satellite, following the launch of the first 10 satellites in January this year.

Satellite communications company Iridium is replacing all its existing satellites with the new models which each feature an Aireon ADS-B payload.  The first 10 NEXT satellites were launched on a Space X rocket in January, and the first of those went fully operational to replace an existing satellite just prior to the World ATM Congress in Madrid last week.

That milestone saw the first of the Aireon ADS-B receivers put into service, seeing and tracking aircraft from space, followed shortly thereafter by the system’s first test flight.

Aireon president and CEO Don Thoma said: “When we first turned on the payloads after they reached orbit, we received an unexpected surprise—aircraft were immediately being seen in real-time.  We’ve already seen commercial aircraft, general aviation aircraft and helicopters in oceanic and remote airspace that have never before had real-time surveillance.”

Thoma told ATW that one of the four Aireon investors, NavCanada, last week “ran a test aircraft through their airspace in a choreographed test with our team to look at the data, record it, validate it to make sure that it is working properly and meets all the very stringent standards for air traffic control. We have been very encouraged by what we have seen so far.”

Similar tests are being run with the FAA this week, and will be rolled out across Aireon’s 10 launch customers around the world who will be using this data for surveillance. These include the four Aireon investors, namely the air navigation service providers (ANSPs) of Canada (NavCanada), Ireland (IAA), Denmark (Naviair) and Italy (ENAV). The UK’s NATS was the first commercial customer to sign up for satellite ADS-B on the North Atlantic, and subsequent signatories include the ANSPs of South Africa, Singapore, the Seychelles, Curacao and Iceland.  And in late February, Aireon signed an agreement with Airways New Zealand, paving the way to start operational validation of the data in the Pacific. 

In addition, a number of Memoranda of Agreement (MoAs) are in place with ANSPs that are evaluating both the performance metrics of the satellite ADS-B data and how it would impact their operating environment. MoAs are in place with Australia and India, but Thoma said there had also been a noticeable “uptick in the number of European ANSPs that are interested,” with MoAs signed with DFS (Germany) and DSNA (France).

“There is clearly a growing interest in the technology,” he said. “In the last three months, people have seen it shift from something on paper, something intangible, to a Space X launch and now live data coming down and we are shifting to the test and validation phase, moving to live operations with aircraft. The focus for the next year is getting all our customers connected, including non ANSP customers, such as SITAONAIR and Flight Aware, who are using the data for flight tracking.”

He said the unique thing that Aireon was doing in air traffic management was providing surveillance as a service for air traffic control.

Aireon VP Aviation Services Cyriel Kronenburg explained: “This is bringing about a true change in how ANSPs think about surveillance strategies. The traditional approach to surveillance was to buy and own the hardware involved. In Europe, for example, there are three independent layers of surveillance and all the hardware required for each of those layers is owned by each individual provider, which is a very expensive way of doing it. In response to increasing airline pressure to reduce costs, European ANSPs see this as a way of putting a layer of surveillance across their airspace that does not require investment in another level of hardware.  It is not replacing anything as a primary source, but they are using it as one of the layers.”

A second launch of 10 Iridium NEXT satellites is scheduled for mid-June this year and thereafter every two months until the full constellation of 75 low earth orbit satellites—including 66 operational satellites and nine on-orbit spares—has been deployed by mid-2018. 

“We expect by the second quarter of 2018 to have all the operational testing and validation activity completed and be completely live for surveillance purposes around the world,” Thoma said.  “The real fun for us begins as we take control and push the performance to see just what space-based ADS-B can do.”