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Inmarsat and ESA Mark Critical Milestone in ATM Modernisation Program

Inmarsat and the European Space Agency have completed the first test flights for a project which will modernise Europe’s air traffic management infrastructure to make flights better for passengers and the planet.


Under an initial phase of development of the Iris Precursor program, four test flights were conducted from Amsterdam to validate the use of satellite-based data link for secure communications and surveillance applications, comparing these capabilities to existing terrestrial data link communications.

The flights were operated on aircraft from the Netherlands Aerospace Centre (NLR) using a prototype of the Iris terminal developed by Honeywell and connected to Inmarsat’s next-generation SwiftBroadband-Safety service through Inmarsat’s aviation partner, SITA.

Flight routes of test flights for Iris Precursor program, Inmarsat


“Each of the flights travelled in different routes, covering all directions to ensure connectivity was maintained as the aircraft crossed satellite beams. The end-to-end connection between the aircraft and SITA’s Controller Pilot Data Link Communication (CPDLC) test ground system was tested extensively and allowed air traffic control messages to be exchanged using Aeronautical Telecommunications Network and Security gateways,” Inmarsat explains in its announcement.

The Iris Precursor programme is a joint effort between Inmarsat and a consortium of air traffic management, air transport, aeronautics and satcom industry companies, working under the European Space Agency (ESA)’s oversight, and supported by ESA’s programme of Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems (ARTES).

The program will deliver satellite communications services via Inmarsat’s secure next-generation SwiftBroadband-Safety platform.

Shorter Flights, Lower CO2 Emissions

The Iris Precursor programme aims to optimise European airspace capacity, which make flights shorter and the skies more sustainable, with reduced fuel burn and lower CO2 emissions.

Iris Precursor develops and deploys secure satellite-based data link communications which will complement existing terrestrial data link communications (VDL2), expected to reach their peak capacity in the near future.

“Efficiency improvements are fundamental to aviation modernisation programs in Europe. As air traffic volume continues to increase, the digitisation of the cockpit is one of the ways to alleviate current congestion on traditional radio frequencies and optimise European airspace, one of the busiest in the world. Using the power and security of satellite connectivity through Iris clearly changes the game in comparison to the ground technology in use today,” said Captain Mary McMillan, Inmarsat’s Vice President of Aviation Safety and Operational Services. “The successful completion of these flight trials brings Iris Precursor an important step closer to initial operational capability, which is currently targeted for 2019. It demonstrates that the use of satellite technology for dense continental airspace is not only a long-term solution, but also a reliable system in the short-term to solve air traffic management issues today.”

Better Global ATM

Magali Vaissiere, Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications at ESA, said: “ESA’s Iris programme is forging ahead as part of Europe’s long-term goal to modernise air traffic control. A stepped approach and good collaboration between public and private partners is bringing excellent results.”

Initial 4-dimensional/4D flight path control and CPDLC exchanges between aircraft and air traffic control were successfully tested in March of this year, during a separate test flight conducted by Airbus with Inmarsat and other partners, as part of the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) programme.

Inmarsat plans a second phase of flight trials for Iris at the end of next year which would fully validate Iris technology.

The next phases include “pre-operational validation” with testing of Iris technology on commercial flights in a real air traffic management environment.

The Iris Initial Operational Capability is expected to go live in 2019, complementing terrestrial systems and delivering enhanced security, safety and efficiency to europe’s aviation infrastructure.

While the Iris Precursor programme will first focus on continental Europe, the partners expect this development process may ultimately help improve air traffic management around the world.

Featured Image: Team members from Inmarsat, the European Space Agency (ESA) and Honeywell during recent test flights for the Iris Precursor air traffic modernisation project, Inmarsat

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