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Reliance on old-fashioned radio contact by pilots and vulnerable tracking systems is still high, but satellites are set to change sky safety, thanks to international collaboration. The European Space Agency’s Iris program is looking to satellites to make aviation safer through modern communications. Worldwide digital data links via satellite, offering much higher capacity, will become the standard for cockpit crews, with voice communications kept as backup.

Digital data links via satellite.
Iris is part of a much broader push to modernize how air traffic is managed in collaboration with the Single European Sky effort of the European Commission, Eurocontrol, airport operators, air navigation providers, and aerospace companies.

An element of ESA’s Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems (ARTES) program, Iris is developing a new satellite-based air–ground communication system for Air Traffic Management (ATM).

Currently, aircraft are tracked by radar when over land and in coastal areas, and flight paths are negotiated by radio. However, once an aircraft heads out over the ocean, ATM is no longer possible until it reenters continental airspace. This means that flight paths are difficult to adjust in response to adverse weather and other factors, and wide buffers must be maintained between aircraft flying in a given oceanic corridor.

Some airlines already use satellite services.
Modernization on this scale demands a long-term stepped approach, but it promises to boost efficiency, capacity, and performance. Iris is divided into two phases, in line with Europe’s master plan for managing future air traffic.

First, the Iris Precursor service will provide air–ground communications for initial 4D flight path control by 2018, pinpointing an aircraft in four dimensions: latitude, longitude, altitude, and time. Second, by 2028, the Iris long-term service will enable full 4D management over airspaces across the globe, and the data link will be the primary means of communications between controllers and cockpit crews.

Controlling flight paths with 4D is safer and more reliable. To help achieve this goal, ESA is developing a new global standard for satcoms that can be adopted worldwide, and is designing infrastructure to make this service available in Europe.

To meet safety regulations, aircraft in European airspace fly an extra 42 km on average than they would on an optimal route, incurring unnecessary costs and carbon dioxide emissions. The 4D paths will enable precise tracking of flights and more efficient management of traffic. A key benefit of 4D is that it allows rapid rerouting, meaning fewer flight cancellations and delays, and safer air travel – possible partly because all aircraft will be continuously monitored and locations periodically reported to control centers.

Airlines have accepted the need to switch to digital services, and some satellite services are already in use over ocean airspace. The changes will take some time because manufacturing schedules for aircraft are set years in advance. Existing planes require modifications to install the new hardware, and affordability requires that costs be kept to a minimum.

High-capacity digital data links via satellite carrying this information to cockpit crews in continental and oceanic airspace are expected to become the norm, with voice communications used only for specific operations. While the initial focus will be on Europe, the capabilities developed will open opportunities for deployment in North America, Asia Pacific, and other regions, where the growth of air traffic is placing a strain on ground-based communications networks.

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