Satellite service provider, Iridium Communications and Harris Corp partners on a new space-based aircraft-tracking venture which could save the airlines money. This venture may help the U.S. military, which is facing a sharp downturn in spending in coming years.
Iridium and NAV CANADA, the Canadian air navigation service, have formed a partnership. Aireon LLC will provide special sensors on all 66 new Iridium NEXT satellites to track aircraft over oceans and other "global blind spots" beginning in 2015. The Iridium NEXT satellites will be Iridium’s new second generation constellation replacing their aging constellation of satellites.
President and chief executive of Aireon, Don Thoma, said that the partnership will create the largest hosted payload agreement made to this date. It would leverage investments already being made by airlines around the world, Iridium, and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
Mr. Thoma said the new space-based tracking system would save airlines an average of $450 in fuel costs for each transatlantic flight. It does this by allowing them to fly more optimal routes. Aireon is making agreements to sell the new service to NAV CANADA and other air traffic control agencies around the world.
Thoma said Aireon was also discussing with the FAA about the new tracking capability. It is not expected for the FAA to sign a contract for 18 months.
Iridium decided to partner with Harris on the venture because it had used high-end sensors on satellites in low-earth orbit, about 4.5 miles above the earth to collect data for U.S. intelligence and other government agencies for 50 years.
Vice president of aerospace for Harris Bill Gattle, said the Iridium NEXT satellites still had room for three additional plug-in sensors, which would allow the government to carry out space-based missions for far less cost than building and launching a dedicated satellite.
Director of aerospace mission solutions for Harris and chair of the Hosted Payload Alliance Janet Nickloy, said U.S. government officials were very interested in exploring such missions, especially given mounting budget pressures.
Satellite communication industry executives have been promoting hosted payload deals for years, but the U.S. government has been slow to place government sensors on commercial satellites given the concerns about how to secure control over those assets, and possible security risks.
Budget cuts may speed up the moves in this direction, according to government officials.
Air Force officials this week realized the need for new options to space acquisition since spending is going to be cut. The Air Force officials say such ventures could help ensure continued capabilities if existing U.S. government satellites run into problems.
They acknowledged some missions might be better suited for hosting on commercial satellites. But with extremely sensitive missile warning and secure communications missions would likely remain on government satellites.