European Space Agency

Satellite Communication for Air Traffic Management (Iris) Overview

The satellite-based Iris system is ready to be a key element in 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 (ESA). It is based on Inmarsat SwiftBroadband-Safety technology that is already approved for Air Traffic Service (ATS) oceanic use, and is soon to be extended for use in continental airspace for the provision of Data Link ATS services (referred to as ATN B1 and ATS B2) and of Airline Operational Communications (AOC).

Developed for ESA by a world-class industrial consortium led by Inmarsat, Iris is already contributing to the European Commission’s (EC) Aviation Strategy and worldwide aviation community; nonetheless additional institutional and programmatic steps from the Air Traffic Management (ATM) community are needed for the integration of Iris into the ATM communication network and for its use by the airlines and Air Navigation Service Providers.

The deployment of the terrestrial technology system known as VDL2 (which was mandated by the EC regulation 29/2009) is clearly showing difficulties in reaching the due DLS performances, thus affecting the effective operational use of the ATM network. The Report on DLS Architecture and Deployment Strategy drafted by SDM and submitted to the EC calls for “the need to support the implementation of the complementary communication technologies as soon as possible, offloading the VDL M2 channels”.

Europe already has one of the world’s most congested airspaces and air traffic is expected to double by 2035. The DLS capability uncertainty may jeopardize the ambitious goals set by the EC through the European Aviation Strategy published in December 2005.

Even in a time when COVID-19 is strongly affecting the world economy, including the aviation sector with a severe passenger traffic collapse, the integration without hesitation of all suitable and available technologies into a DLS architecture is the right opportunity for Europe to achieve the digital transformation and green deal so much pursued by the European Commission. This crisis might actually spark a digital transformation for industry to immediately raise efficiency and cut costs, while at the same time prepare for the future when performance, safety and capacity requirements will become more stringent1.

Iris is a ready-technology that can timely deliver the required ATS performances, in a complementary fashion to terrestrial VDL Mode 2; it requires that a critical mass of users are equipped with Iris when needed as well as an appropriate number of ANSPs to provide the service. This calls for a suitable deployment plan and a regulation package including a funding scheme and incentives for airlines and ANSPs to be immediately implemented, in order to have a ready service timely with the passenger traffic re-growing expectations.

In agreement with SESAR Joint Undertaking (SJU), Iris was designed to comply not only with standards, technical performance, and requirements, but also to support air-ground services for both ATS and data-hungry AOC services, providing enough capacity in the near-term with an easy scalability potential for future needs. A recent capacity study, performed by the Iris consortium in line with SESAR Deployment Manager assumptions, has indeed confirmed that Iris has the needed capacity, with large margins, to support both the volume of data expected to be offloaded from VDL2 and the traffic increase in the coming years.

Furthermore, Iris supports ADS-C applications (EPP) which are key enablers for i4D which can deliver route optimizations, reduced fuel consumption due to fewer holding patterns and related reductions in CO2 emissions per flight; overall much better aviation efficiency. The use of ADS-C applications can have a significant impact on major Airports Hubs both for national, continental, and intercontinental flight arrivals, by reducing delays and traffic congestion and so improving traffic flow.

In summary: Iris is a readily available solution enabling EC’s Aviation strategy. It is based on the following main pillars:

  • Compliance with ATS safety and performance requirements for both short and medium term (ATN B1 and ATS B2 respectively, including ADS-C);
  • Immediate coverage of Europe and scalability to become a global worldwide component to support air-ground ATM communications;
  • High capacity, guaranteeing the required performances for ATS safety services whilst also supporting the data-hungry AOC services needed for airline operations;
  • Resilience to malicious attacks, due to end-to-end secure and redundant mechanisms;
  • Continuity, becoming a core part of the future air-ground communication infrastructure supporting future ATS needs;
  • Scalability and cost viable solution using the multi-mission2 nature of satellite communications infrastructure, serving a large customer base that will constantly demand new, high-performance features;
  • Future proofing, as upgrades to the existing system can be gradually implemented to fulfil future requirements for improved performance in compliance with upcoming ATN-IPS standards.
  • Ready to interconnect to the Common European ATM infrastructure.

The results achieved so far draw on the involvement of leading European institutional stakeholders (EC, SESAR Joint Undertaking, SESAR Deployment Manager, EASA and EUROCONTROL). ESA is committed to continue this cooperation with European institutions in support of 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 regulations. Exchanges between the involved parties aim to provide full visibility and full confidence on the outcome of all Iris-related activities carried out or planned by ESA.

Iris technology is a reality based also on important milestones of technical validation 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 target ATM performance requirements3.

The Iris system is getting ready for the execution of a large-scale validation using certified avionics flying on revenue flights from commercial airlines (the so-called “Iris Early-implementation” in 2022-2023. The observed performances will be analysed with the support of several European ANSPs in cooperation with EUROCONTROL/Network Manager, while the airlines will exploit Iris commercial and operational benefits.

“Iris early implementation” will pave the way to the full implementation of the Iris system, which will rely on a common validation and deployment roadmap that ESA is defining with major European stakeholders.

Major ATM stakeholders already recognise that SATCOM is one of the most mature solutions available today for complementing VDL2 in the short to medium term, while having strong potential for supporting global ATS air-ground communications in the long term.

From a regulation point of view, under EC mandate, EASA is already working on the definition of a new DLS-IR. This should lead to a performance-based approach focusing on services and associated performances rather than on technology 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 aircraft to be equipped with Iris.

Keeping the leading position of Europe in this process in a united European front will give European industry a competitive advantage compared to other world players, whilst also contributing greatly to common global aviation goals.

1 “This crisis provides nothing more than some “breathing space” for an ATM infrastructure that had already reached its structural capacity limits. The pressure on the ATM infrastructure to embrace a more digital future to become more cost efficient, resilient and scalable to fluctuations (up or down) in demand for air transport has therefore never been higher” (DG move, European Partnership on Integrated Air Traffic Management, May 2020)

2 Including non aviation missions

3 RCP 130 RSP 160 for ATN B2

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