Aireon activates service, begins flight-tracking trials

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WASHINGTON — Aircraft tracking company Aireon initiated service with its space-based sensor network April 2, starting global monitoring of aircraft location and velocity on a near real-time basis.

“Today is when we start generating revenue,” Aireon CEO Don Thoma said at a news conference here.

Air traffic regulators from Canada and the U.K. have started trials with Aireon’s service, Thoma said, focusing on flight paths across the North Atlantic Ocean.

Aireon’s sensor network rides on the Iridium Next constellation, which consists of 66 operational satellites, nine orbiting spares and six ground spares all equipped with Aireon sensors. NAV Canada and the U.K.’s NATS are both investors and customers for Aireon.

“By next year we should be in a cash flow positive position,” Thoma said, citing 11 customer commitments and Aireon’s service activation. He declined to state how much revenue Aireon anticipates this year.

Aireon in December borrowed $200 million through a Deutsche Bank-led group of investor funds after manufacturing and launch delays with Iridium Next pushed out when Aireon could start service. It used those funds to start paying Iridium overdue fees for hosting its sensor network.

SpaceX launched all 75 Iridium Next satellites between January 2017 and January 2019. In early February, Iridium declared the completion of its $3 billion constellation refresh with the activation of the final two spacecraft needed to complete the network of L-band voice-and-data satellites.

Aireon has raised $351 million to date, of which $69 million came from NATS and $150 million from NAV Canada.

At the April 2 news conference, officials from NATS and NAV Canada said trial service with Aireon is already demonstrating how space-based flight tracking can improve flying.

Aireon showed a map of more than 10,000 aircraft it is tracking in near-real time. Credit: SpaceNews/Caleb Henry
Aireon showed a map of more than 10,000 aircraft it is tracking in near-real time. Credit: SpaceNews/Caleb Henry

“We’ve gone from an operational environment where we were seeing aircraft positions every 14 minutes to just eight seconds,” NATS CEO Martin Rolfe said via webcast. “That’s totally transformative in terms of safety performance. If a pilot inputs the wrong instruction, or needs our help, we will know about it and be able to assist in seconds rather than minutes.”

Rolfe said Aireon’s service enables NATS to trial closer flight paths, reducing the separation distance from 40 nautical miles to 14 nautical miles.

“That in turn means we can increase the capacity on the fastest and most fuel efficient routes. Up to 90 percent of flights across the North Atlantic would now be given the flight routes they asked for, compared with just 60 percent beforehand,” he said. “Eight out of every 10 flights will now be able to fly without any kind of speed restriction, compared with the far less efficient fixed speed environment we previously had to operate in.”

Rolfe said those changes are estimated to generate $300 in fuel savings and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by two tons per flight.

Aireon’s sensors track Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast, or ADS-B, signals from aircraft equipped with such transponders. Thoma said most aircraft are already equipped with ADS-B transponders, and that 2020 mandates for ADS-B in the United States, the European Union and elsewhere are driving high adoption.

Neil Wilson, president and CEO of NAV Canada, said NAV Canada is testing Aireon flight tracking in Alberta and other areas where it has ground-based radars, and plans further service expansion.

“We will be phasing in space-based ADS-B to include our northern and arctic regions,” he said. “That area is currently without surveillance, so the benefits that Aireon will bring will be similar to the North Atlantic.”

Aireon is still working to bring the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration onboard as a customer — a process Iridium anticipated would have happened by 2015 or 2016.

Thoma said the FAA has been involved with Aireon since 2011, the year Aireon was founded, and has been “working very closely” with the company running tests.

The FAA recently demonstrated heightened interest in Aireon data after Ethiopian Airlines’ deadly March 10 crash of a Boeing 737 Max 8 near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, killing all 157 people onboard. Thoma said the FAA contacted Aireon for data the same day, and that Aireon provided the requested data to the agency and the National Transportation Safety Board.

Last year, the FAA announced plans to conduct operational trials of Aireon’s service over the Caribbean in a small portion of the oceanic airspace the agency regulates. Thoma said the FAA hasn’t committed to using Aireon for all the oceanic airspace it covers, but that “they are on a plan to do that.”