First phase of European satellite-based air traffic control communication system completed

A programme to create the world’s safest aviation infrastructure – and cut the bill for deficiencies in the existing system – has moved forward with the completion of a significant milestone.

Inmarsat and the European Space Agency (ESA) have completed Phase 1 of ESA’s Iris Precursor, the new satellite-based air–ground communication system for Air Traffic Management (ATM).

The completion of Phase 1 – which has validated the architecture and system design, plus the safety and security of ESA’s Iris programme – releases €7.6m in funding from ESA and its partners for Phase 2, which will lead development of an enhanced satellite network to overlay existing terrestrial VHF networks to carry ATM communications over European skies.

ESA’s Iris programme is part of the European Union’s Single European Skies ATM Research (SESAR) initiative, which aims to address the annual €4bn cost resulting from deficiencies in the European ATM system.  Inmarsat state that without SESAR flying in Europe will reach its growth limits, consequently leading to delays, higher costs for airlines, and higher CO₂ emissions.

In 2010, the European ATM system controlled 9.5 million flights with 33,000 flights experienced on busy days. The European Commission forecast predicts this will increase to nearly 17 million flights per year by 2030 and 50,000 flights on busy days.  In 2010 there were 19.4 million minutes delay for en-route flights, and on average each flight travelled 49km further than the equivalent direct routed flight.

By 2018, ESA’s Iris Precursor programme, in partnership with Inmarsat, is expected to provide air–ground communications for initial 4D flight path control, pinpointing an aircraft in relation to latitude, longitude, altitude and time, thereby enabling precise tracking of flights and more efficient traffic management

It will also facilitate SESAR’s broader flight management concepts, where flight plans can be continually updated during flight to maintain an optimal trajectory to destination. These trajectory management concepts will allow air traffic control to offer better routings, sequence aircraft far in advance and maximise airport and airspace capacity.

“Today’s announcement marks an important milestone for Inmarsat and ESA,” said Leo Mondale, president of Inmarsat Aviation in a statement. “The European airspace is the most congested in the world, and this project will unlock the full potential of the aviation industry in the region and serve as a model for efficiently and effectively managed airspace for the rest of the world.”