Sunday, January 15, 2017

Space-Based Flight Tracking Comes Closer With Launch of Satellites: Ten Iridium Communications satellites, set to go into orbit Saturday, are ushering in a new chapter in air-traffic control—which the U.S. aviation industry plans to sit out for now

A JetBlue Airways aircraft in 2016. Aireon, a satellite joint venture, would give controllers full visibility and real-time flight information from planes over both water and land by next year, if all goes according to plan.

The Wall Street Journal
Updated Jan. 15, 2017 2:11 p.m. ET

A cluster of satellites launched over the weekend is intended to begin overhauling the way air-traffic controllers track planes around the world, but the U.S. may not take a lead role in undertaking those changes.

For decades, controllers have used ground-based radar to direct planes over land. More recently, they have been finding aircraft locations via global positioning satellites, or GPS, but they can do so only over land or near the shore. There has been no real-time ability to track planes in flight over oceans, which cover 71% of the planet, or remote polar regions.

A new satellite-based joint-venture called Aireon LLC would give controllers full visibility by next year, if all goes according to plan, providing real-time flight information from planes over both water and land.

The first 10 satellites were blasted into orbit Saturday morning from a central California Air Force base by entrepreneur Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., and were determined to be functioning normally. Eight of them are expected to begin commercial operations in about three months, after various checks are completed. SpaceX, as the company is called, has signed contracts to launch 70 such satellites into orbit.

Until recently, many supporters of the fledgling traffic control system seemed optimistic that U.S. authorities would embrace the changes relatively quickly. But over the weekend, the head of the satellite-services company backing the venture indicated that wasn’t likely.

Skepticism among some U.S airlines and federal budget constraints are contributing to that reluctance, according to industry officials. But along with other countries and foreign air-traffic-control providers, federal experts are slated to start verifying the accuracy of the data transmitted by the system shortly.

Aireon dates back to 2011, when Iridium Communications, Inc., a McLean, Va., telecommunications-satellite operator, formed a consortium with foreign air-navigation agencies to find a way to track global air traffic from space. The idea was to piggyback the air-traffic control technology onto Iridium’s replacement constellation of telecom satellites.

An air traffic controller in the control tower at Los Angeles International Airport in 2016. Using conventional land-based systems, air-traffic controllers must extrapolate the location of airplanes flying over water; with a satellite-based system they would see each airplane’s exact location.

Proponents say Aireon’s technology would give pilots greater flexibility to change routes, avoid turbulence and cut flight times. It would help airlines save fuel and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. And it would allow planes routinely to fly within 15 miles of each other over water, compared with about 80 miles of separation under current rules—leading to more traffic in the air on any given route.

The U.S., with the busiest airspace, hasn’t signed on yet with Aireon as either an investor or customer. Budget constraints and reluctance by some airlines to invest in additional equipment have prompted an advisory committee of the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of an Aireon contract compared with upgrades of existing ground-based services. Preliminary results are expected next month; though a decision isn’t likely until later this year.

The FAA has been focused on rolling out advances of its new land-based satellite surveillance system, which cost $2.7 billion and isn’t expected to be fully operable until at least 2020.

Iridium Chief Executive Matt Desch, after the weekend’s satellite launch, projected that the FAA’s embrace of the technology will be slow and gradual, probably taking at least several years. “It won’t be quite the big bang we expected” initially, he said, adding that even after agency agrees to sign up, it is expected to start using the service only in limited areas. Mr. Desch said Iridium intends “to support the process in the U.S.” but looks forward to “signing up the rest of the world.”

The Aireon technology has gained currency in the almost three years since the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. That event helped persuade global authorities to adopt international aircraft-tracking rules and look for better ways to pinpoint the location of downed planes.

Today, U.S. controllers in Oakland, Calif., are responsible for a swath of the Pacific Ocean from the West Coast to the Philippines. Controllers in Canada and Great Britain share responsibility for busy North Atlantic routes with counterparts in New York and on Portugal’s Azores Islands. Without full visibility, these and other “oceanic” controllers have to funnel planes onto designated aerial highways, keeping them well separated.

“I’m very excited about how this is going to change my job,” said Neil Collins, a 17-year Canadian controller in Gander, Newfoundland, who helps direct airplanes over the North Atlantic. “We will know exactly where [the planes] are.”

Currently, if a plane deviates from its flight plan, controllers must extrapolate where it is, he said. Most aircraft emit position reports only every 15 minutes and while moving at about 500 miles an hour.

The technology also could obviate the need for developing countries to build or maintain conventional land-based tracking systems. “This would be very similar to the transformative impact of wireless in developing nations,” said John Crichton, Aireon’s chairman.

A study last summer by the Flight Safety Foundation, an independent, nonprofit, international aviation-safety organization, found such satellite-based navigation “should be an overall substantial improvement to the global aviation safety net.”

The venture’s success depends on a number of factors. The planned total of 66 Iridium satellites—including the 10 launched Saturday plus nine orbiting spares to provide full coverage of the Earth—needs to tested and validated as they orbit 485 miles above the planet.

Airlines must install new equipment on their planes to take advantage of the technology, although new models may already come equipped. National air-traffic control agencies will need to sign up and pay for the service: The price will depend on the volume of air traffic crossing their airspace, whether the planes are over land or water, and whether controllers will use the system as a primary tool or backup. Normally the agencies defray their expenses by charging airlines and other airspace users.

Aireon, made up of Iridium and air-traffic organizations in Canada, Ireland, Denmark and Italy—all equity stakeholders—said it already has contracts with air-navigation providers in the U.K., Singapore, South Africa and Iceland, among others. Agencies in Australia, New Zealand, Russia and Germany are assessing the potential for their skies.

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