Iridium satellite comms set to fuel ACARS demand

The FAA´s recent approval of Iridium satellite communications for mission-critical applications looks set to fuel demand for SITA’s ACARS messaging service.
The air transport communications specialist says demand for ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) has doubled in five years and is now processing two million messages per day for more than 10,000 user aircraft, airline operations centres, air traffic control, and aircraft and engine manufacturers.
Pilots and cockpit systems use ACARS primarily to communicate with airline flight operations and aircraft maintenance departments as well as with air traffic control. Critical routing information is sent by air traffic control through Controller Pilot Datalink Communications (CPDLC) over FANS (Future Air Navigation) systems using ACARS. Weather updates or new flight plans can be requested by the crew.
Philip Clinch, SITA Vice President, Aircraft Communication Services, said: “Even as we look towards the introduction of a new aeronautical telecommunications network protocol for air traffic control data link and aircraft IP links for electronic flight bags, ACARS is so embedded in aircraft that it is set to remain the communications backbone of aviation for another 15 to 20 years.
“ACARS has been using Inmarsat satellites for 20 years and demand is now likely to grow significantly following the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval this month of the use of Iridium satellite communications for mission-critical applications. This will allow more aircraft to use satellite ACARS for air traffic control communications enabling denser airspace operations over oceans while maintaining safety. We are confident that we can continue to meet the growing demand.”
Damien McCormack, portfolio director, SITA commenting on FAA approval of Iridium earlier this month explained that it would enable air traffic controllers to reduce separation zones and enhance operational efficiency without compromising safety, reducing emissions and fuel usage through more efficient routing of aircraft. “In addition, airlines would benefit from global and cost-effective communications coverage that enables them to leverage preferred routes,” added McCormack.
That approval represented a major development, for two reasons, according to Bob Poole of the Reason Foundation writing in his latest newsletter. “First, it extends controller-pilot datalink to the polar regions, where the current Inmarsat communications satellites do not provide coverage. Second, the Iridium equipment needed on aircraft costs about one-fourth as much as an Inmarsat box.”
He cites media reports that suggest Australia, Japan, and the UK are close to certifying the Iridium system as well. “New long-haul aircraft will soon come with such equipment built in, and one supplier of Iridium boxes foresees a retrofit market of as many as 10,000 aircraft,” writes Poole.
With new generation aircraft such as the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 787 equipped with ACARS systems for their flight-critical communications alongside latest generation electronic flight bags, ACARS avionics have continued to evolve to provide increasing capabilities.
New emerging protocols including ICAO standard ATN and AIRCOM IP over broadband radio links are being implemented in parallel to ACARS.