Global Air Traffic Control System Uses Iridium Satellites
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Global. In some circles, it’s a dirty word, denoting some secret cabal of Knights Templar or Mole Men that’s attempting to establish a New World Order. The internet has certainly helped spread such conspiracy theories, and we’ll soon be able to broadcast even more fake news as companies race to throw up huge satellite networks for a global internet system that will connect the half of humanity that’s not already clinging like flies to the world wide web. One startup that’s been flying under the radar is using a newly launched satellite constellation to provide the first space-based global air traffic control system.
Investing in the First Space-Based Air Traffic Control System
Based in the Washington, DC area, Aireon has raised a reported $351 million, according to SpaceNews, to develop a space-based tracking technology for aircraft that uses satellites rather than ground-based radar. The startup is actually a spinout of sorts from Iridium (IRDM), a nearly 20-year-old satellite company that we profiled last year in our list of 10 satellite stocks. Iridium recently completed deployment of its second-generation satellite network at a cost of about $3 billion. The 66 low-Earth orbit satellites in the constellation provide voice and data coverage – even limited internet through Iridium Certus service – anywhere in the world, including over oceans and the polar regions.
Launched in 2011, Aireon later became a joint venture between Iridium and NAV CANADA, which is Canada’s Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP). In 2013, other so-called ANSPs later joined the party, based on an SEC filing, including ENAV in Italy, the Irish Aviation Authority, and Naviair in Denmark, for $120 million in new equity into Aireon. Last May, Aireon took in another $69 million from the UK’s privatized air traffic management company NATS. Basically, a ton of money has been poured into the infrastructure and instrumentation to complete Aireon’s space-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) system.
Iridium has bet big (and taken on debt) that the ADS-B system will be widely adopted – and it looks like a good bet. Not only are most of the investors also the customers, but the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has already announced that it’s transitioning away from radar to ADS-B as the standard navigational aid. It has mandated that aircraft operating in most controlled U.S. airspace be equipped for ADS-B avionics by January 1, 2020. Europe should follow by mid-2020. Meanwhile, Iridium has nearly tripled its market cap to $3 billion since our last article in January 2018, with the stock price more than doubling and trading near its 52-week high.
Benefits of a Space-Based Air Traffic Control System
Aireon’s global air traffic control system went fully operational this month with the final deployments of the ADS-B payloads aboard Iridium’s new satellite constellation. Trials are currently underway over the North Atlantic between NAV CANADA and NATS. The new air traffic control system provides real-time air traffic surveillance and tracking to 100% of ADS-B equipped aircraft on the planet, according to Aireon. Previously, traditional ground-based surveillance covered just 30% of the globe, with position updates from aircraft every 10 to 14 minutes to track aircraft outside of radar coverage. Each payload aboard an Iridium satellite receives ADS-B messages from aircraft containing data that include position, speed, and heading. Position reports are delivered to customers within one second of their broadcast by the aircraft transponder.
The new system will reportedly reduce flight safety risks by 76% in the North Atlantic, according to a joint analysis by NAV CANADA and NATS, while also improving flight efficiency. That’s because airlines can fly routes at optimal speeds and levels, thanks to precise tracking, which is expected to save up to $300 per transatlantic flight. The FAA estimates airplanes can burn about 80 gallons less of fuel per flight. That’s at least worth another bag of airplane peanuts per passenger.
Aireon’s new global air traffic management system may have proven its merit even before its official launch this month. In March, the FAA used flight data from the company to analyze the Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed in Addis Ababa on March 10, according to a story in the The Washington Post. The data showed that just before it crashed, the Ethiopian Airlines jet flew a similar up and down pattern to that of the Lion Air 737 Max 8 that crashed into the Java Sea in October, the Post reported. The data from Aireon turned out to be instrumental in the FAA’s decision to ground the Max jets last month.
While deployment of a global air traffic control system has been the ultimate goal for Aireon, it has a couple of other products and services on offer. One is GlobalBeacon, a web-based dashboard developed in collaboration with another aviation tech company out of Houston called FlightAware. GlobalBeacon provides real-time 4D aircraft positions as well as customizable alerts for immediate notification if an aircraft is in distress. The technology is marketed to airlines that need to meet new guidelines established by the International Civil Aviation Organization called the Global Aeronautical Distress Safety System (GADSS).
Under GADSS, airlines and aircraft operators must track their fleet anywhere in the world at a frequency of one position every 15 minutes during normal operations. By 2021, they will need to automatically receive positions once-per-minute during emergency situations. Qatar Airlines was the first company to adopt GlobalBeacon. The idea is that GlobalBeacon will prevent any more mysterious airplane disappearances like what happened five years ago to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which is believed to have vanished somewhere in the Indian Ocean.
An upcoming offering involves leveraging flight data from the tracking system to perform global air traffic analysis, design better routes, and predictive analysis for arrivals and departures, as well as fleet optimization. No doubt that’s a hint there we’ll see artificial intelligence applied to air traffic control at some point soon with those big data sets.
Aviation Technology Companies Offering Real-Time Flight Tracking
While Aireon appears to be the clear leader in real-time air traffic control management with its own dedicated global satellite network, there are at least a couple of other companies offering aircraft-tracking services.
Founded in 2005, Houston-based FlightAware has a lot more going on than its partnership with Aireon. The company’s flight-tracking platform, HyperFeed, integrates thousands of real-time sources, including data from air traffic control systems in more than 45 countries and its own network of ADS-B ground stations in pretty much every country in the world, in addition to Aireon’s space-based global air traffic management system. The private company claims the title of the world’s largest flight tracking data company, serving more than 10,000 aircraft operators and service companies. The
keen terrorist casual user can also play on FlightAware’s website and do things like search for flights between any two destinations, say Dallas to London:
Founded in 2006, Stockholm-based Flightradar24 started out as a hobby between a couple of Swedish aviation geeks who decided to build a network of ADS-B receivers in parts of Europe. In 2009, they started a DIY flight-tracking network by sending out ADS-B receivers to volunteer operators who get a free premium subscription (normally $500) to the flight-tracking service. The company now has more than 20,000 receivers in operation and tracks more than 180,000 flights per day. Flightradar24 claims it is used by most major airlines, as well as aviation companies like Airbus and Boeing.
While the tracking service relies heavily on planes that carry the ADS-B transponder, it also streams in other data sources such as radar and applies a navigation technique called multilateration that measures the time it takes to receive the signal from aircraft with an older model transponder to calculate the position of the aircraft. The free app allows users to follow flights in 3D mode, along with an augmented reality setting that you can use to point your smartphone at the sky to identify flights overhead.
Aireon’s global air traffic control system arrived with relatively little fanfare, despite the fact that it promises to be a game-changer for the aviation industry. The space-based system may also prove to be a game-changer for Iridium, as it seeks to leverage its brand new constellation – a decade in the making but only 18 months to deploy – for the rapidly emerging Internet of Things ecosystem.
Of course, it has plenty of competition, and might be advised to differentiate itself by partnering with a company that offers AI solutions for IoT industrial applications to make its communications platform even more attractive to users. We also have to wonder what role 5G might play in competing with the space-based IoT market in the long term. However, Iridium did show some solid growth in 2018 – revenue was up 17% and subscriptions grew at 16% – despite taking a net loss of $13.4 million. Capital expenditures should drop dramatically beginning this year, while the company expects to continue to grow its IoT business, especially after bringing on Amazon Web Services as a customer last year.
Meanwhile, we also have to wonder about the long-term future of 25,000 air traffic controllers – a profession in the United States with a median salary of about $125,000 – as more precise tracking technologies and automation come online. As one famous air traffic controller once lamented: “Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.”
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