NLR reports excellent Iris polar coverage

Dutch aerospace researchers at NLR have completed the first flight trials using Inmarsat satellites to test seamless air-ground communications which will allow controllers to monitor aircraft with far greater precision and provide the basis for future 4D trajectory flight.

Satellite communication is a modern alternative to the congested ‘traditional’ air-ground communication using radio frequencies, enabling air-ground communications in areas where there are no ground stations, such as remote regions or above the oceans.

The flight trials were carried out using NLR’s Citation research aircraft following a contract awarded by the European Space Agency (ESA) and satellite operator Inmarsat. The Netherlands is co-funding ESA’s Iris programme.

The trials form part of ESA’s Iris Precursor programme whose objective is to develop by 2019 an Iris prototype that enables continuous air-ground satellite communication which will be essential for 4D trajectory management. This will include exchanging information such as the aircraft’s position, altitude and time which will allow air traffic controllers to determine very accurately where an aircraft is at any point in time and – more importantly – exactly what time it will arrive.

The downstream technology was tested extensively during four Citation flights to different European destinations. The system’s performance was also tried out beyond the polar circle, where satellites are situated at a lower position relative to the horizon. The system was found to work excellently, even when switching between satellite beams.

Using satellite beams means that the frequency on which information is sent and received is coupled to the aircraft’s geographical position. The frequency changes when an aircraft flies into a different satellite beam. New flight trials are expected to be carried out at the end of this year so as to validate the Iris technology with real aircraft systems.

The Iris project is closely related to the SESAR project focused on modernising European Air Traffic Management (ATM).

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