NATS Takes $69 Million Stake in Aireon

 - May 16, 2018, 11:11 AM
When Iridium Communications completes its Next satellite network, Aireon will have 66 operational space-based ADS-B payloads in orbit. (Image: Aireon)

UK air navigation services provider (ANSP) NATS has invested $69 million to acquire a shareholding of some 10 percent in space-based ADS-B air traffic management (ATM) surveillance pioneer Aireon.

Four years after becoming the first Aireon non-shareholder to agree to become a future customer of the Herndon, Virginia-based ATM services provider, NATS decided to join Aireon’s five existing equity investors—Iridium Communications and ANSPs Nav Canada, the Irish Aviation Authority, Italy’s ENAV, and Denmark’s Naviair—because “the timing is right and the risk profile is right,” said NATS CEO Martin Rolfe. “The deal has come about when it was the best time to do a deal…us investing is good not just for NATS but for Aireon and the other partners.”

NATS’s decision to become an Aireon investor will benefit Aireon because the UK ANSP “has extensive experience [working with ANSPs] in other countries,” said Marc Courtois, chairman of both Nav Canada and Aireon. Courtois added that NATS’s long involvement in efforts to increase international harmonization of air traffic management carries particular significance for Aireon, which works closely with the European Aviation Safety Agency to obtain EASA certification as a pan-European provider of ATM services. EASA certification would enable other national aviation regulators throughout the world to certify Aireon quickly as an air traffic management services provider in their own jurisdictions, he said.

Aireon CEO Don Thoma confirmed that the NATS investment would allow Aireon to begin paying Iridium Communications fees for hosting the company’s space-based ADS-B transceivers on every low earth orbit Next satellite that Iridium launches. Thoma added that in the future Aireon will continue to pay Iridium hosting fees from the revenues it receives from the various ANSP customers the ATM surveillance provider has engaged for its space-based ADS-B positional data feeds, once Aireon’s global ATM surveillance service becomes fully operational in 2019.

To date, Iridium has orbited 50 Next satellites—47 of which now operate and three of which serve as spares—via five SpaceX Falcon 9 launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The space-based ADS-B transceivers on those satellites now receive 9 billion positional messages from aircraft every month, according to Aireon. Iridium plans to orbit another five Next satellites on another Falcon 9 launch on May 22. It expects launch of the remaining two Falcon 9s carrying Iridium Next satellites, which will increase the orbiting constellation to 66 operational satellites and nine orbiting spares, by this fall.