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Iris for aviation

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ESA / Applications / Telecommunications & Integrated Applications

Iris aims to make aviation safer, greener and more efficient by developing a new satellite-based air–ground communication system for Air Traffic Management (ATM), in partnership with Inmarsat.

Currently, aircraft are tracked by radar when over land and in coastal areas, and pilots communicate with Air Traffic Control (ATC) by voice, over radio frequency. These channels are congested, and with the projected doubling of aircraft in Europe’s airspace by 2035, are expected to reach capacity within the next decade. Delays and cancellations are already common due to congested air traffic, causing frequent bottlenecks at airports. If this trend continues, ATC will need to contend with more and more aircraft but with no more capacity to communicate with them, resulting in aircraft needing to circle airports, remain grounded and take longer routes as they wait to communicate with ATC. 

Iris will relieve pressure on these terrestrial channels by supplementing them with digital text for position reports, clearances and runway conditions, sent and received between pilots and ATC by satellites to terminals in the cockpit and the flight control facility. This method is faster, more accurate and more efficient than spoken communications over crowded radio frequencies. 

Iris will implement these improvements under the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) programme, which promises to boost efficiency, capacity and performance of ATM worldwide. Iris will provide the satcoms technology for this programme.

Iris is also designed to enable initial ‘4D’ trajectories, pinpointing an aircraft in four dimensions: latitude, longitude, altitude and time, which is one of the major concepts defined in SESAR.

This will enable precise tracking of flights and more efficient management of traffic through Trajectory-based Operations (TBO). TBO allows pilots and controllers to collaborate on flight trajectories and calculate the shortest available routes, cruise at optimum altitudes, and use continuous climb and descent paths, saving fuel and improving the environment.

This is particularly important as once an aircraft heads out over the ocean, ATM is no longer possible until it re-enters continental airspace. This means that without technology like Iris, flight paths are difficult to adjust in response to adverse weather and other factors, and wide buffers must be maintained between aircraft, which can also result in delays and inefficient routes.

High-capacity digital data links via satellite carrying text communications and 4D information between ATC and aircraft in continental and oceanic airspace are expected to become the norm, with voice communications used only for specific operations.

While the initial focus will be on Europe, the capabilities developed will open opportunities for deployment in North America, Asia Pacific and other regions, where the growth of air traffic is placing a strain on ground-based networks.

By 2028, Iris will enable full 4D trajectory management over airspaces across the globe and the data link will be the primary means of communications between controllers and cockpit crews.

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