UK air navigation service provider (ANSP) NATS became the fifth ANSP to take an equity stake in Aireon, the space-based aircraft surveillance provider that is expected to begin live operations of some of its services later this year.

NATS will invest $69 million to take a 10% stake in McLean, Virginia-based Aireon, which was originally launched in 2012 as a joint venture between Iridium Communications and NAV Canada.

Iridium, which is launching the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) payload-carrying satellites that Aireon will utilize, provided $12 million in initial seed money and NAV Canada has invested $150 million in five tranches.

The Irish Aviation Authority, Italy’s Enav and Naviair of Denmark, combined, have invested $120 million over four tranches.

Aireon’s core business will be to provide aircraft surveillance data to subscribing ANSPs. So far, at least 11 ANSPs have signed up for Aireon’s data services. Through a partnership with flight-tracking data company FlightAware, Aireon is also supporting a web-based tracking dashboard for airlines called GlobalBeacon, for which Qatar Airways is the launch customer. And its ADS-B network will be available to airlines, ANSPs and search-and-rescue organizations as a public service to locate missing aircraft in emergency situations. 

Aireon will operate the system through a network of 66 low earth orbiting Iridium NEXT satellites, which will allow it to identify and monitor the locations of any ADS-B-equipped aircraft, including over oceans, mountains and in remote regions.

NATS announced its investment at a press conference in Washington DC, during which it also confirmed it is consulting with airline customers about introducing the satellite technology for use over the North Atlantic starting with operational trials from 2019.

“This is a transformational technology that will deliver the world’s first truly global air traffic control infrastructure, making flying even safer and more efficient,” NATS CEO Martin Rolfe said, adding: “We’re currently consulting with our airline customers about how to best deploy this technology. The North Atlantic is the busiest area of oceanic airspace in the world and the gateway to Europe, but its routes have now reached their limit of capacity with existing technology.”

NATS and Aireon pointed out that NATS controllers handled 500,000 flights through North Atlantic airspace last year, or about 80% of transatlantic traffic. “Being able to control this volume of flights as well as offer airlines the routes they want at a speed that suits them would generate a net saving of more than $300 in fuel and 2 tonnes of carbon dioxide per flight, according to analysis by NATS and ICAO,” NATS and Aireon stated.

Importantly, NAV Canada, NATS and Aireon believe the real-time monitoring of aircraft Aireon’s technology will provide will allow for the reduction of separation distances over the Atlantic from around 30 nm currently to 15 nm, which could potentially significantly increase transatlantic capacity.

Ben Goldstein, ben.goldstein@informa.com