How technology is improving security and tackling busier skies

IRIS and the future of air traffic management

Inmarsat is bringing the flight deck into the connected world. Its newest innovation, SwiftBroadband–Safety (SB-S), always on, always secure satellite broadband for the cockpit, will transform the way pilots fly and airlines operate. Not only will SB-S deliver game-changing security and operational efficiency benefits to airlines, this cutting-edge service is ready to power IRIS, a next generation air traffic modernisation programme for Europe.

IRIS is an initiative that will use satellites to help track, communicate with and manage flights, bringing better connectivity to the cockpit. “SwiftBroadband–Safety supports IRIS,” explains Inmarsat Aviation’s VP of Safety and Operational Services, Captain Mary McMillan. “And in Europe, IRIS is the future of real-time, secure air traffic management.”

Delivering efficiency and security in busier skies

Under the IRIS programme, Inmarsat, in cooperation with ESA (the European Space Agency) is working with key aviation and industry stakeholders like Airbus, Boeing, Honeywell and NATS (the UK Air Navigation Service Provider), to help deliver the air traffic management (ATM) improvements Europe needs to ease congestion and prepare for future growth.

“Air traffic management is under great pressure and the digitisation of cockpit communication is a vital building block of the future,” says Leo Mondale, President of Inmarsat Aviation.

In short, current air traffic control systems use old technology that was designed when the number of planes in the sky was a fraction of what it is now. IRIS will use the power of satellites to relieve the congestion of traditional radio networks and allow new secure data link services to help planes fly safer and more efficiently. IRIS also brings this satellite technology to continental areas, starting with Europe, one of the busiest regions in the world.

IRIS will mark a new era of secure communications in the aviation industry and position Europe at the forefront of ATM innovation.

So what will IRIS deliver and what’s the timeline?

The first flight tests using the early building blocks of IRIS took place in the 2016 and were very successful. The IRIS Initial Operational Capability will go live as early as 2019, complementing terrestrial systems. The first obvious improvement is a fully secured connection provided to the cockpit to transmit data that can increase flight efficiency and safety. The second big improvement is the timely deployment of 4D trajectory-based operations, the core flight efficiency improvement in next generation modernisation programmes.

This means that altitude, latitude, longitude and time data will be integrated into the ground ATC system, increasing the predictability of flights. The result will be increased airspace capacity and safety.  All this should be in place by 2028.

“IRIS will mark a new era of secure communications in the aviation industry and position Europe at the forefront of ATM innovation,” says Mondale.

IRIS brings enhanced cybersecurity

The transition to broadband IP and satellites ushers in an era of greater connectivity and more devices with the potential to connect. IRIS infrastructure incorporates ground-based gateways that will enable the SB-S system to interface with the European ATM Network and incorporate security measures to protect over-the-air communications. This cybersecurity capability has been adopted by Airbus for its future satellite communications platform.

Reduced costs, improved safety

IRIS, powered by SwiftBroadband-Safety, will offer other benefits alongside better use of Europe’s crowded airspace and improved safety. These include reduced flight times, less aircraft noise and lower CO2 emissions. The last of these is particularly important – because, as Captain McMillan notes, we are fast approaching a time when “airlines will not only have to pay for the fuel they buy, but also for the fuel they burn.”

As technology advances, Inmarsat and its partners remain at the leading edge of new developments – improving aviation communication for airlines and air navigation services providers alike. With IRIS, the aviation industry will benefit from modern ATM in terms of fewer flight delays, safer air travel, cost savings, lower emissions, and enhanced cybersecurity.