Aireon: Space-Based Global Aircraft Tracking

United's first 737 MAX 9 at the Seattle Delivery Center (Photo: Boeing)

When Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing most of the world was stunned that a large airliner could simply disappear. To many who aren’t well versed in the aviation industry it was unfathomable how there wasn’t any sort of tracking system to monitor planes over large empty expanses of the open ocean.

Radar generally isn’t useful once an aircraft passes 100 to 150 miles off the coast and away from the nearest radar station. Pilots usually have to report their position frequently to air traffic controllers instead.

ADS-B Tracking

Besides radar, aircraft are also equipped with ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast) systems. These systems identify the airplane’s position, speed, and more and periodically broadcasts the data. This data is picked up by ground-based receivers and can be used by air traffic controllers as part of the Next-Generation Air Transport System (NextGen). These receivers are also popular among aviation enthusiasts who set them up in their homes and feed the data into large networks such as FlightRadar24 enabling a significant amount of coverage.

The usefulness of this system comes from that fact that there is no need for a handshake to occur between transponder and receiver. The transponder simply periodically broadcasts a signal and receivers in the area pick up the signal. This system has its drawbacks, however, namely being the lack of global coverage due to limitations of where receivers can be placed.

Space-Based ADS-B Tracking

This is where a company called Aieron comes in. Aireon was launched as a joint venture between Iridium Communications, a premier satellite-based communications company, Nav Canada, and several other air traffic control entities around the world.

Aieron wanted to bring to the world a space-based ADS-B program to allow for global aircraft tracking and surveillance, thus eliminating the main drawback of ground-based ADS-B receivers.

These space-based receivers are piggybacked onto Iridium NEXT satellites. This is the second generation of network communication satellites that has been around for two decades now powering global telecommunications devices such as satellite phones.

The Iridium NEXT satellites will create a constellation of 66 active satellites, nine in-orbit spares, and six on-ground spares. This constellation will effectively give Aeiron global coverage.

In addition to the Aieron ADS-B payload, the satellites are also carrying marine AIS ship-tracker receivers for exactEarth Ltd, a sea vessel tracking company.

The company is still going through various certification processes but expects to be certified for integrated operations with air traffic controllers sometime in the near future.

Aireon has been brought into the public spotlight since it was the company that provided data to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that resulted in the grounding of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft in the United States.

While the crash of the Ethiopian 737 MAX 8 happened in range of ground-based ADS-B receivers, it happened in an area where there wasn’t good coverage available. This is where Aireon’s space-based ADS-B receiver network came into play since it can provide globally consistent coverage.

This represents a new chapter in global aircraft surveillance that will help make the skies safer.

Hemal Gosai

Hemal took his first flight at four years old and has been an avgeek since then. When he isn't working as an analyst he's frequently found outside watching planes fly overhead or flying in them. His favorite plane is the 747-8i which Lufthansa thankfully flies to EWR allowing for some great spotting. He firmly believes that the best way to fly between JFK and BOS is via DFW and is always willing to go for that extra elite qualifying mile.
Hemal Gosai