ICAO panel approves Iridium safety services

 - February 8, 2008, 5:42 AM

Iridium took a big step toward its goal of providing en route aeronautical safety services to airliners operating on transoceanic and polar routes after an ICAO panel accepted a draft standards and practices document the company submitted last year. The endorsement makes Iridium a viable alternative to Inmarsat for aeronautical mobile  satellite route services (AMSRS) and Acars messaging.

Iridium has signed agreements with Continental Airlines, Northwest Airlines, FedEx and others to initiate in-service trials of voice and data in support of the aeronautical safety services, Acars messaging and Fans-1 (future air navigation system) communications beginning with flights over the North Atlantic and South Pacific later this year.

Trials of Acars voice services are slated to start this summer, with full use of aviation safety services anticipated to be available by this time next year, according to Don Thoma, Iridium vice president for corporate development. Business jet operators seeking to take advantage of the low-cost voice and data services should consider preparing for satcom upgrades now, he added.

“Business aviation customers have much of the same avionics that the air transport market does, and so this will provide them with a system that is global in nature, with connectivity for Fans at service rates that are competitive,” Thoma said. He added that Iridium Acars communication could be used now as a replacement for HF radio for dispatch purposes should an HF transceiver fail. Early adopters of the technology will be airlines flying polar routes, where Inmarsat has coverage gaps.

Iridium is in the process of defining performance specifications for the satellite network and the avionics that will support AMSRS and Acars communications. A document defining the minimum performance specifications for the avionics was expected to be completed this month, after which engineers will seek formal approval of the Iridium network for AMSRS and Fans communications, expected to occur by year-end. In the meantime, Iridium will begin flight trials with a small group of airline customers.

“We are ready to provide safety services to a select group of customers today,” explained Mike Meza, Iridium director of aviation services. “We’ll start with the voice communications services of Acars and then, as we continue with additional operational evaluations this year, we believe we will obtain full Fans approval” by December, he added.

The most recent revenue figures released by Iridium showed a healthy 33-percent increase in subscribers during last year’s third quarter compared to the same period in 2006. The satellite communications services provider now boasts 225,000 users worldwide and reported third-quarter revenue of $74.2 million. Iridium gear has been installed aboard nearly 14,000 aircraft, mostly business jets and helicopters. Thoma said he expects the pace of Iridium installations aboard airliners will soon match that of business jets as carriers start adopting the technology.

Iridium will continue providing satellite safety services and Acars messaging to customers after it deploys the Iridium Next satellite network starting in 2013, Thoma said, adding that current gear will be compatible with the new satellites.
The company estimates the cost to replace the current 66 satellites and nine in-orbit spares that make up the current constellation will be about $2 billion. The Next satellite network will introduce additional functionality, including at least 512 kbps of data transmission capability per channel, Thoma added. Iridium expects the Next constellation to be fully deployed by 2017.