One step closer to alleviating Europe’s congested skies

Iris, our programme with ESA to provide continental satcom datalink over Europe to drive  air traffic modernisation and transform Europe’s congested skies, has accomplished an important milestone with another successful test flight under its belt.

European airspace is becoming increasingly congested, and air traffic is projected to double by 2035, so fears of frequency congestion could lead to increased flight times, travel disruption, and the associated economic and environmental consequences in Europe are very real.

With the goal of improving air traffic management efficiency, the European Commission created the Single European Sky Air Traffic Management research programme or SESAR, tasked with modernising air traffic management systems, including upgrading current communications systems and procedures.

A solution to Europe’s overcrowded skies

Enter the Iris programme, a public private partnership between the European Space Agency (ESA), Inmarsat and other technology partners, created to develop a satellite-based communication datalink solution that will relieve the pressure on ground-based radio frequencies.

Iris is powered by SB-S, Inmarsat’s secure global IP broadband platform for the cockpit, which means it can provide more accurate positioning for aircraft to ground air traffic control systems. Using ‘4D’ trajectories, Iris allows aircraft to be pinpointed in four dimensions: latitude, longitude, altitude and time.

This pinpoint accuracy and the reliability of the data link, will provide a multitude of benefits. From the better use of airspace, to shorter flight times and fewer delays, Iris will also enable en-route flight updates, increased operational security, and tailored arrivals that optimise runway capacity whilst reducing fuel burn and CO2 emissions.

Iris infographic

Putting it to the test

Recently hitting a major milestone, an important test flight was conducted using the Iris programme’s state-of-the-art avionics, from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. The three-hour flight, operated with a Cessna Citation II aircraft provided by Dutch company NLR, was supported by Iris technology partners Honeywell, CGI and SITAONAIR (now SITA FOR THE AIRCRAFT). They were able to successfully demonstrate real-time communication exchanges between the cockpit and flight control facility, over continental and oceanic airspace.

John Broughton, Inmarsat’s Vice President of Aviation Safety and Operational Services, reflected on the promising results: “With terrestrial datalink technologies set to reach their capacity limits in the next ten years, the results of our highly-successful test flight with ESA brings the Iris programme a step closer to certification by the European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) and commercialising this ground-breaking technology for airlines.

“Our previous test flights were conducted during the Iris development phase, using a combination of simulated systems and existing terminals. The fact that we have now flown with the programme’s actual avionics system shows the excellent progress being made. All performance objectives were met and Iris remains on track to debut on commercial flights next year, using the same hardware as the Amsterdam test flight.”

Image of Datalink on FMC

Everyone’s a winner

Airlines are set to see significant savings from satellite communications initiatives, such as Iris. The London School of Economics recently released the second chapter of its Sky High Economics, report studying the benefits of operational connectivity in the aviation industry.

The report the indicates that modernisations brought to air traffic management by satellite communications, could result in savings of up to US$3 billion per year for airlines.

And finally, the benefits of fewer delays, more scheduled flights on optimal routes and faster flight times are obvious for passengers too, resulting a much better customer experience.

With an extensive list of advantages, Iris is set to transform European travel. Early adopters are due to undertake validation processes as early as 2020, meaning the service could be fully-operational the following year.

As Magali Vaissiere, ESA’s Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications puts it, “The fact that the Iris programme has been designed to enable more efficient, cost-effective air traffic management will be welcomed by the aviation industry, as well as airline passengers and Europe as a whole”.