Inmarsat and European Space Agency (ESA) to enhance air traffic management in Europe with Iris Service Evolution

- Madrid, Spain

Joint initiative will bring data link communications to the 21st century, resulting in optimised airspace and airport capacity, plus reduction in flight times, aircraft fuel burn and CO2 emissions
Consortium of over 30 leading aviation and space companies have joined the project, including Airbus, Boeing, NATS, Thales Alenia Space, and the Iris programme’s first airline partner, Alitalia.

Inmarsat, the world’s leading provider of global mobile satellite communications, has been awarded a contract by the European Space Agency (ESA) to enhance Air Traffic Management (ATM) in Europe with a new generation of satellite-based data link communications.

Under the Iris Service Evolution programme, Inmarsat will head-up a consortium of over 30 leading companies from across the aviation industry to develop a technical, commercial and operational roadmap that meets Europe’s long-term requirements for enhanced air traffic communications.

The programme will focus on using advanced satellite technology to improve aeronautical data link services, enabling flight plans to be updated continuously, even while aircraft are on route to their destination. This will lead to the significant optimisation of European airspace and airport capacity, in addition to overall reductions in flight times, fuel burn and CO2 emissions.

Iris Service Evolution supports the Single European Skies ATM Research (SESAR) masterplan for the next-generation of air traffic management, which offers a high-level view of the critical developments that are required to deliver a high-performing aviation system for Europe.

Leo Mondale, President of Inmarsat Aviation, said: “Air traffic management is under great pressure and there is no doubt that the digitalisation of cockpit communication is a vital building block of the future, opening the door for airlines to truly benefit from enhanced data utilisation".

Iris will mark a new era of communication in the aviation industry and places Europe at the forefront of ATM innovation. Inmarsat pioneered satellite data link services in oceanic areas 25 years ago and we look forward to now bringing this expertise and knowledge to continental airspace. Together with ESA and members of the Iris consortium, we will demonstrate the important contribution that Iris will make to air traffic management in Europe.”

Iris Service Evolution builds on the Iris Precursor contract awarded to Inmarsat by ESA in November 2014, under which an initial set of services was developed to complement existing, but congested terrestrial data link services. The services, which address the aviation industry’s short-to-medium term ATM needs, are supported by Inmarsat’s next-generation SwiftBroadband Safety (SB-S) satcom system, an evolution of its existing high-capacity L-band SwiftBroadband system.

Iris Precursor achieved a milestone on 23rd February 2016, when the first test flight was operated between Toulouse and the Baleares Islands, passing above Madrid. The two-hour-and-40-minute flight, operated using an Airbus A330 aircraft, successfully performed initial 4D (i4D) flight path control and Controller Pilot Data Link Communication (CPDLC) exchanges with Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre (MUAC). It also tested the handover between Inmarsat satellite spot beams.

Iris Precursor is expected to support CPDLC and i4D flight path control by 2018, with the exchange of information coming directly from avionic systems. In the longer term, Iris will evolve to support Full 4D and operate in a highly secure multi-link environment with future terrestrial data links, enabling more efficient traffic management by synchronising trajectories between air and ground.

Magali Vaissiere, Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications at the European Space Agency (ESA), said: “Iris brings safer air traffic management to airlines and their passengers. It is an outstanding example of how cooperation between commercial partners and institutions can create effective technical solutions that improve our everyday lives and make European companies more competitive in the world markets.”

The Iris Service Evolution consortium gathers key players from air traffic management, air transport, aeronautics and the satcom industry, including Airbus, Boeing, NATS and Thales Alenia Space, together with the Iris programme’s first airline partner, Alitalia, the national carrier of Italy.

Giancarlo Schisano, Chief Operations Officer at Alitalia, said: “We are very proud of being the only current airline partner of the Iris consortium. We will make our know-how available for this key project, which will revolutionise the aviation industry. We believe that satellite communications represent the natural development of the industry and will lead to concrete benefits to airlines and their travellers due to reduced flight times, more savings on fuel consumption and an even more advanced flight safety.”

The ESA-Inmarsat collaboration was created following a major funding commitment approved at ESA’s 2012 Ministerial Council. While the programme will initially focus on Europe, the services will also benefit ATM operations in North America, Asia Pacific and other regions around the world where the growth of air traffic is placing a strain on ground-based networks. 

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