New Iridium Satellites May Carry ADS-B Payloads for Global Surveillance

 - October 3, 2011, 5:11 PM
One of 66 new Iridium Next satellites, scheduled to launch between 2015 and 2017, will possibly carry ADS-B payloads for global surveillance. (Photo: Iridium)

Satellite communications provider Iridium may make space available on its next-generation satellites for automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) receivers, making possible global surveillance of aircraft, with emphasis on oceanic flights in non-radar airspace.

Speaking at a recent conference in Williamsburg, Va., Iridium CEO Matthew Desch said the company has entered talks with aerospace companies and air navigation service providers to deliver an ADS-B payload on each of 66 Iridium Next replacement satellites, scheduled to launch from 2015 to 2017. Desch said the “one-way” surveillance feed to ground ATC providers would complement ADS-B systems under deployment in U.S. and other domestic airspace and support aircraft equipage mandates. Europe will require aircraft to broadcast ADS-B position reports starting in 2015; in the U.S. 2020 stands as the deadline.

The plan “is to put a NextGen ADS-B receiver on every one of our satellites,” Desch said, referring to the Next Generation Air Transportation System in the U.S. The payload “will use about 30 to 40 kilograms of space and we can basically provide real-time surveillance of every NextGen-equipped aircraft anywhere on the planet.” With regularly updated ADS-B position reports, air traffic controllers can reduce separations between aircraft and provide more efficient routings. Airlines, the International Civil Aviation Organization and the FAA all have shown support for the plan, Desch said at the conference, sponsored by satcom equipment supplier ICG.

Iridium’s second-generation satellites will maintain the existing constellation architecture of 66 cross-linked, low-Earth-orbit spacecraft that provide global coverage for satellite voice and data communications used in aviation, ground and maritime applications. Desch said the $3 billion upgrade is fully funded and on schedule. The company seeks commitments by 2012 to host additional 50-kilogram sensor payloads for dedicated communications, climate research, weather forecasting and other applications.

In the case of ADS-B, Iridium likely would become part owner of a separate entity, joining other companies to provide the service, Desch said. “We will basically create and own the [surveillance] data as a consortium and sell it,” he said. “We will be making some revenues up front, in what we call hosting fees–probably a couple hundred million dollars between now and 2017. But the real value of this is going to be selling that data to all the entities that want it, which include the military and others. We think that’s a $1 billion to $2 billion revenue source that we will share with our partners.”