Is Space-based ADS-B a Disruptive Innovation?

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In ATM, as in any industry, technology can serve two distinct purposes. If institutionalised, it can act as one of the pressures for stabilising the industry, or it can disrupt the current status quo and force an institutional and strategic change.

We've considered this before in relation to Remote Towers and Virtual ATC - time now to look at space-based ADS-B and where that fits into the concept of 'disruptive innovation,' and what the consequences might be!

ADS-B is an on-board aircraft system that transmits its location, speed and other parameters to air navigation service providers (ANSPs). Signals are usually transmitted to ANSPs via a network of ground-based receivers. However, with space-based ADS-B those signals are sent via a satellite constellation, rather than a terrestrial network. Currently only 10% of the Earth's surface is sufficiently covered with infrastructure to enable aircraft surveillance and spacebased ADS-B offers an attractive alternative, especially in oceanic and low-density areas where ground infrastructure is currently lacking. Besides its surveillance function, the technology is also viewed by ICAO as one of the best means of constant global aircraft tracking. But just how 'disruptive' is it?

Five characteristics of disruptive technologies – and how space-based ADS-B compares

Another characteristic of disruptive innovations is that they are often developed by new entrants to the market, or spin-off companies set up by incumbent organisations. The first, and major, player in the field of space-based ADS-B is Aireon, which is indeed a spin-off entity with four leading ANSPs and one leading satellite communication provider acting as the founding members and investors.

Space-based ADS-B requires high initial capital investments to deploy the satellite infrastructure, and there is a long lead time to deployment as well. So Aireon should enjoy significant 'first-mover' advantages when services eventually take off. But it is not alone in identifying an opportunity to disrupt the old guard: Globalstar, Gom Space and SES Techcom are also eyeing the market, with the latter reportedly aiming to deploy the first dedicated ADS-B constellation by 2022.

Consequences

ANSPs traditionally own and operate their own air traffic management infrastructure. Space-based ADS-B presents a different model for ANSPs, one where they would subscribe to a service owned and operated by an external provider.

However, several factors currently complicate the move to service-based ATM provision. The prevalent institutional setup amongst ANSPs is one which does not incentivise them to minimise their capital expenditure or deploy infrastructure more effectively across regions. For space-based ADS-B to truly disrupt the status quo in ATM, more radical institutional change will be needed.

I will discuss this further in my next blog!

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Ivan Baruta
Tel (UAE): +971 4 372 44 20

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