European Space Agency

Satellite Communication for Air Traffic Management (Iris) Overview

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The satellite-based Iris system is one key to a successful European implementation of Data Link Services for Air Traffic Management; and could underpin a global solution.

Iris is a Data Link Service (DLS) satellite system funded and promoted by the European Space Agency. Based on Inmarsat SwiftBroadband-Safety technology that is already certified for oceanic use, it will be extended for use in continental airspace for the provision of advanced DLS (referred to as ATN B1 and B2), as well as advanced Airline Operational Communications (AOC).

Developed for ESA by a world-class industrial consortium led by Inmarsat, Iris is already contributing to the EC’s Aviation Strategy and the aeronautical community: but additional steps are needed for the adoption of satellite into the ATM network and the provision of current and future DLS with the required performance. In part this is because deployment of the terrestrial ATN system known as VDL2, (which was mandated by the EC in 2009), has shown its limitations even to the extent of affecting the correct operations of DLS.

Despite corrective actions and a recovery plan put in motion by the EC, the deployed terrestrial network still does not meet the performance required to fulfill the needs of air traffic controllers and airlines: Europe already has one of the world’s most congested airspaces and air traffic is expected to double by 2035. It thus jeopardizes the ambitious goals set by the EC through the European Aviation Strategy published in December 2005.

Only an integration of all available technologies into a DLS system-of-systems, can meet current and future performance, safety, and capacity requirements that will become more stringent in line with increases in air traffic and data-hungry services. Today Iris is a ready-technology that (integrated with terrestrial systems as part of the overall ATM network), can immediately deliver the required performance, while providing enough capacity to support the forecast medium-term data traffic in the busiest continental areas.

In agreement with the SESAR Joint Undertaking (SJU), Iris was designed to comply not only with the technical performance and requirements but also with the capability to support services for both air-ground ATM communications and AOC.It already provides enough capacity to support near-term, data-hungry services, whilst guaranteeing the required quality of service for safety of life services and with an easy scalability for possible future needs. Although the use of different technologies will improve the required robustness and availability for safety of life services, the Iris solution in itself represents a bridge towards longer-term SESAR objectives.

Its high performance guarantees continuity in ATM service provision, even as the terrestrial component undergoes the required re-design to mitigate its current, well-known limitations.

In summary, Iris is a readily available solution enabling the EC’s Aviation strategy based on:

  • Compliance with ATM safety and performance requirements for both short and medium term (ATN B1 and B2 respectively);
  • Immediate coverage for Europe and scalability to become a global system;
  • High capacity, guaranteeing the required quality for safety services whilst also supporting the data-hungry services needed for airlines operations;
  • Resilience to malicious attacks, due to an end-to-end secure and redundant system; 
  • Continuity, as satellite can not only fill the gaps of existing terrestrial-based ATM DLS but is also an asset on which to build reliable solutions for future ATM needs; 
  • Scalability and a cost viable solution because satellite usage is shared with many non-aeronautical users, resulting in a large customer base that will constantly demand new, high performance features; 
  • Future proofing, as upgrades to the existing system can be easily implemented to fulfill future requirements for improved performance or compatibility with IPSbased technology.

The results achieved so far draw on the involvement of leading European Institutional stakeholders (EC, SESAR, EASA and EUROCONTROL). ESA is committed to further this cooperation with European bodies to help fulfil the Single European Skies policy set by the EC. To this end, ESA has signed Memorandum of Cooperation with the SESAR Joint-Undertaking (SJU), the SESAR Deployment Manager (SDM) and EASA, to guarantee the compliance of Iris to the required standards and legislations. Exchanges between the involved parties aim to provide full visibility on all Iris related activities carried out or planned by ESA.

The Iris technology is a present reality, with the important milestone of technical validation already achieved within the SESAR1 programme, where Iris is solution #109 of the SESAR catalogue. Additional validation activities have been carried out in ESA’s Iris Programme through several flight trial campaigns (the latest in July 2018), demonstrating that Iris meets the target performance requirements1.

The Iris system is currently being prepared for the execution of a large-scale validation using certified avionics flying on revenue flights from at least two different airlines (the so-called “Iris Early-implementation” in 2020-21). The achieved performances will be analysed with the support of pre-eminent ANSPs, while the airlines will analyse the commercial and operational benefits of Iris. 1 RCP 130 RSP 160 This “Iris Early-implementation” will pave the way to full implementation of the Iris System, which will rely on a common validation and deployment roadmap that ESA will define with the SJU and SDM.

Anticipating these planned steps, major ATM Stakeholders already recognise that Iris is the only candidate available for complementing VDL2 in the short term, while having strong potential for supporting global ATM automation in the long term. Nevertheless, further actions are required to enable and boost a shared implementation plan for the Iris system at a European level. Implementing the new ATM system will require amendment of current DLS legislation by the EC.

This should formalize the use of a performance-based rather than technology-based approach for DLS provision (further details of which are provided in this paper). Explicit recognition by EASA of the Iris technology as an acceptable means of compliance to such new legislation, will be the key to unlocking funding for airlines and other stakeholders and thereby enabling a critical mass of airplanes to be equipped with Iris.

The coming period will be vital for defining and implementing new DLS worldwide. A united European front will give European industry a competitive advantage compared to other world players, whilst also contributing greatly to common global goals. This requires an amended ATM policy in Europe to be consolidated and approved as soon as possible.

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