ESA, Inmarsat embark on Iris flight trials

Inmarsat and the European Space Agency (ESA) have signed a contract to move the Iris programme into its second phase.

This will see the Iris partners conducting flight trials that will assess the service in a real operational environment for air traffic control (ATC) and airline operational communications (AOC).

As John Broughton, senior vice president, aircraft operations and safety services at Inmarsat Aviation, explained: “We are very excited to embark on the next phase of Iris with all of our partners. Important progress has already been made on various critical elements and as a result of strong industry-wide interest, several important agreements have been signed with major European ANSPs, aircraft manufacturers and airlines. Today’s agreement brings us another step closer to delivering the Iris programme.”

The trials will be conducted on approximately 20 equipped aircraft, which will fly commercially over a six-month period starting in 2020, allowing Iris to be assessed in a real operational environment. Selected airlines will take part in the demonstration, with the support of leading ANSPs, to evaluate the Iris programme for air traffic control (ATC) and airline operational communications (AOC) across continental Europe.

Magali Vaissiere, director of telecommunications and integrated applications at ESA, added: “Flying this technology for six months on some 20 aircraft brings years of research and preparation closer to fruition. We are a step closer to making real the highly anticipated idea of a modern air traffic management system over Europe. We look forward to seeing the results of the commercial flight demonstrations, and the environmental and operational benefits that Iris will bring to Europe’s congested airspace.”

Iris was designed in response to the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) programme’s aim to modernise European air traffic management. The ground-breaking Iris programme was created to address today’s near-capacity ground-based communications systems which will be under significant pressure in the next 5-10 years, which often results in delays and cancellations and causes frequent bottlenecks. Iris provides a safe, secure satellite-based data link that will also enable more efficient air traffic management and reduce the environmental impact of flying.

To avoid the practical and economic consequences of such disruptions, ESA developed the Iris Programme in partnership with Inmarsat, which is powering the programme with its award-winning SB-S digital aircraft operations platform.

With Iris, satellite communications won’t just be reserved for aircraft over the ocean. The programme will enable controller to pilot communications through broadband digital text, rather than less reliable voice calls over VHF radio, as is currently the case. This means that position reports, clearances and runway conditions can all be sent and received via terminals in the cockpit and the flight control facility.

Iris will also enable precise flight control with 4D trajectories, pinpointing an aircraft in four dimensions: latitude, longitude, altitude and time. This kind of precise tracking of flights through trajectory-based operations, will allow pilots and controllers to collaborate on flight trajectories and calculate the shortest available routes, cruise at optimum altitudes, and use continuous climb and descent paths, saving fuel and creating less impact on the environment.

Once the trials are underway, Inmarsat and ESA will also be working together to gain pan-European certification of the Iris Service Provider, which will include the definition of distribution agreements. Once in place, Iris will be the first satcom communications service of its kind to be certified in the continent.

On top of this, Inmarsat will also be conducting research & development activities, including prototyping work with Thales Alenia Space, as well as other Iris partners. This will include preparing for the transition to the Aeronautical Telecommunications Network/Internet Protocol Suite (ATN/IPS) standard, which will be the make the service truly global.

Inmarsat is also continuing to grow its L-band network, which supports its SB-S platform, by launching two new, advanced L-band payloads to join its existing fleet in 2020 and 2021. This will further cement the company’s long-term commitment to the highly reliable safety communications services it offers to the aviation community.

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