UK-based satellite telecommunications company Inmarsat has completed the first flight trials for satellite-based aviation safety service, Iris Precursor, in order to improve and upgrade air traffic management over European airspace.

Iris Precursor aims at developing and installing secure satellite-based data link communications to maximise airspace capacity across Europe.

The increase in airspace capacity will in turn help reduce travel times, fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

Inmarsat Aviation Safety and Operational Services vice-president Captain Mary McMillan said: “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.”

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Iris Precursor also aims to complement the existing terrestrial data link communications (VDL2), which are expected to reach capacity in the near future.

Supported by European Space Agency’s (ESA) Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems (ARTES) programme, the Iris Precursor programme will be conducted by Inmarsat in collaboration with a consortium of major companies from across the air transport, aeronautics, air traffic management and satcom industries.

ESA telecommunications and integrated applications director Magali Vaissiere 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.”

The Iris Precursor programme will provide services through Inmarsat’s secure and advanced SwiftBroadband-Safety platform.

Under the project, four test flights were conducted from Amsterdam in the Netherlands under an initial phase to validate the use of satellite-based data link for secure communications and surveillance applications.

"A stepped approach and good collaboration between public and private partners is bringing excellent results."

The flight trials were conducted to compare the capabilities of satellite-based data link to existing terrestrial data link communications.

The test flights were operated on aircraft from the Netherlands Aerospace Centre (NLR) by using a prototype of the Iris terminal developed by US-based company Honeywell and connected to Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband-Safety service.

The four aircraft traversed in different routes, covering all directions in order to ensure that connectivity was maintained as the flights crossed satellite beams.

Though initially focused on continental Europe, the Iris Precursor programme will also facilitate air traffic management in other regions worldwide in the longer term.

Image: Inmarsat and ESA use Honeywell’s Iris terminal prototype to complete the first flight trials for Iris Precursor. Photo: courtesy of Inmarsat.