NATS funnels £50m into Aireon to help accelerate technology revolution

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The UK air traffic management service provider, NATS, has formed ties across the Atlantic in a bid to develop a global air traffic surveillance of aircrafts.

The organisation has invested £69m (£50m) in Aireon, an American company pioneering a space-based air traffic surveillance service with plans to revolutionise the aviation industry.

AireonSM will monitor the location of automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) equipped aircraft flying anywhere in the world, through a network of 66 low Earth orbiting Iridium NEXT satellites.

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The service will offer global air traffic surveillance of aircraft, meaning oceans and remote regions, including the poles, deserts and mountainous areas, will have real-time aircraft surveillance for the first time.

News of the $69m (£50) investment, worth approximately 10% equity, was announced at a press conference in Washington DC, near Aireon’s headquarters.

NATS also confirmed it is currently consulting with its customers about introducing the satellite technology for use over the North Atlantic starting with operational trials from 2019 to deliver the capacity and safety benefits that the airspace requires to keep pace with demand.

Martin Rolfe, NATS chief executive officer, said: “This is a transformational technology that will deliver the world’s first truly global air traffic control infrastructure, making flying even safer and more efficient.

“Investing in Aireon is the best way for us to shape the future of the service in a way that benefits our customers in the UK and elsewhere, and to demonstrate NATS’ commitment to playing a leading role in the development of the next generation of global air traffic technology.

“We’re currently consulting with our airline customers about how to best deploy this technology. The North Atlantic is the busiest area of oceanic airspace in the world and the gateway to Europe, but its routes have now reached their limit of capacity with existing technology, so we are delighted to now have a way to safely fulfil the ever growing demand from our customers. What is additionally exciting is that this same technology will also deliver fuel savings and CO2 reductions that will directly benefit airlines and their customers.”

Don Thoma, Aireon CEO, added: “The enhancements Aireon’s space-based ADS-B service will allow in the North Atlantic are a game changer for the aviation industry and will connect North America and Europe unlike ever before.”

Last year, NATS Controllers handled 500,000 flights through North Atlantic airspace, comprising 80% of all transatlantic traffic, and by 2030 industry estimates expect that to grow to almost 800,000 flights.

Being able to control this volume of flights as well as offer airlines the routes they want at a speed that suits them would generate a net saving of more than $300 (£220) in fuel and 2 tonnes of CO2 per flight, according to analysis by NATS and ICAO. That equates to more than a million tonnes of CO2 saved every year.

Baroness Sugg, the UK’s Aviation Minister, said: “We welcome the agreement between NATS and Aireon which will see UK skills and expertise play a leading role in developing the next generation of global air traffic management technology.

“Our world class aviation industry has a proud and accomplished history, from the invention of the jet engine to pioneering air traffic control. This agreement will help ensure that we remain at the forefront of this vibrant sector.”

Monitoring aircraft in real-time will also support the reduction of separation distances from around 40 nautical miles (nm) to just 15nm, in turn making the airspace more flexible and with predictable fuel and environmental benefits.

The investment in Aireon has been made by NATS (Services) Limited (NSL). It also comes one year after NSL became joint shareholders in the Canadian digital tower company, Searidge Technologies alongside NAV CANADA.

Tags : Air trafficAireonaviationBaroness SuggdronesNATS
Emma Calder

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