Written by: Adam Parkinson
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An enabler to innovation

Since the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the Cold War space race in the 1960's, space has captured our imagination, and today it is set to revolutionise ATM.

ATM is no stranger to space, starting with satellite communications in the 1990's and progressing in the 2000's towards high accuracy, GNSS-based navigation, delivering commercial, environmental and safety benefits. GNSS has also enabled surveillance applications such as ADS-B where the aircraft broadcasts a highly accurate report of its GNSS position. But the pace of change has been slow, with full equipage of commercial aircraft not planned until 2020. So, while satellites have changed aviation, high costs have inhibited its use except where there are little or no alternatives. Today, an innovation called 'satellite ADS-B' is about to change all that.

Satellite ADS-B is the reception of ADS-B transmissions by satellites to create a global picture of all ADS-B equipped aircraft. Amongst potential providers, Aireon has been a key player, committing to deploy a global service that can potentially meet ATS surveillance requirements, despite no initial global demand. This upfront investment is potentially very exciting, as for the first time it will be possible to provide the same level of surveillance service everywhere in the world irrespective of national borders or current ground infrastructure. This would be a big step towards a seamlessly integrated, global, end-to-end ATM system.

But where is the innovation? Smaller, cheaper satellites have enabled alternative models for offering satellite services. However, satellite ADS-B is not fundamentally changing what happens in ATM. The innovation is in changing how ATM is done. Traditionally ANSPs have managed their own surveillance infrastructure, but in the Aireon model surveillance will be provided as a third-party service to multiple ANSPs. This revolutionises both an ANSP's operating model as well as potentially impacting regulation and oversight activities. It also has drawbacks, as service failures could have global impact. ANSPs need to assess these risks carefully, adapting their contingency arrangements as necessary.

While satellite services may not be a disruptor in the true sense of the word, the biggest innovation for ATM may be yet to come. Satellite ADS-B has the potential to provide access to a global database of real time aircraft positions enabling as-yet unimagined new Big Data applications. Here there are analogies to disruptors in other industries such as the inclusion of GNSS chips in mobile phones ultimately enabling the development of apps such as Uber. A risk was taken to invest in something new, that was then made available to others, thus enabling the wider market to innovate. The question is whether innovation will be allowed flourish in ATM?

For more information, contact Adam Parkinson.

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