New M2M technology lets planes fly over Polar Regions for first time

After six years of testing, a new satellite communication for oceanic flights has been approved by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Iridium Communications Inc. (McLean, Va., U.S.A.), a satellite communications company, will provide satellite data services for air traffic control communications when flying across oceans and over the Polar Regions.

Iridium’s Future Air Navigation Systems (FANS) 1/A is a controlled pilot data link service that automatically reports data, such as location, back to air traffic control every four minutes of flight time using low-orbit satellites. According to Iridium, this data link service reduces the exposure to operation errors and pilot deviations by automatically sending information without pilots having to call it in themselves.

The technology is already being used by airlines such as Cargolux, Hawaiian, and Continental, with more expected to adopt the new technology in the future. Continental had been an active participant in the testing of the communication system, and currently has 11 Boeing 737-700/800 and 18 Boeing 757’s using the communication technology, according to Ron Renk, Continental manager of flight technologies and a 737 pilot. Continental, who merged with United Airlines in October, plans to equip 23 Boeing 747 Subsidiary United aircrafts with iridium technology later this year.

According to Philip Clinch, vice president of Aircraft Solutions at SITA, a company specializing in air transport communications and information technology (IT), this Iridium system was built using a previous system designed by Inmarsat (London, England), a satellite telecommunications company. The difference between Inmarsat’s system and that of Iridium’s, is Iridium provides coverage over the Polar Regions and provides lighter equipment that can be used on smaller aircrafts, as well as save larger aircrafts time and money. The equipment used by Iridium weighs 15 pounds, compared to the 40-50 pounds of equipment used by Inmarsat. According to Clinch, the cost of weight operating a wide-body aircraft is $50 per pound per year. In the airline industry the life of this type of equipment is between 10-15 years, which makes it cheaper to own and operate an Iridium system.

The satellite communication provided by Iridium now allows airlines to fly through the Polar Regions instead of around them, while still maintaining communication with air traffic control. Before Iridium, airlines had no way of communicating in the Polar Region besides using a High Frequency (HF) radio, which according to McCormack is so unreliable that airlines decided not to use it and risk being out of communication. Inmarsat could not be used because it did not have satellites located in the region.

Now, being able to fly over the poles, airlines can save time and money.

According to Damien McCormack, director of Aircraft Solutions at SITA, flying over the poles can save approximately 30 minutes to an hour in flight time, depending on the size of the aircraft, flight route and exactly what points over the Poles the plane is flying.

McCormack goes on to say that by saving one hour on an airbus 330, which can accommodate up to 335 passengers, it can account to a savings of 5.5 tons of fuel, which equates to 17 tons of C02 emissions. With a Boeing 747, which can accommodate between 416-524 passengers, saving one hour of flying time would account to saving 10 tons of fuel, which equates to 35 tons of C02 emissions.

Another benefit from flying over the poles is that for the same amount of fuel, airlines can carry more passengers.

“Some airlines have worked out that for a Boeing 777 flying for JFK to Peking you can carry about an extra 90 passengers, and you’re saving 85 minutes in flight time in the winter,” said McCormack. “In the summer you can carry an extra 75 passengers and you’re saving 70 minutes in flight time.”

In addition to flying over the Polar Regions, another major advancement is better communication while on a TransAtlantic, Pacific or South Atlantic route, according to Don Thoma, executive vice president for marketing at Iridium.

“Over land masses they have radio towers up and have VHF data links to send operational data to track the location of the aircraft, but over ocean regions there are really no ways to communication with the aircraft besides with Inmarsat or through high-frequency or HF radio for voice communication, which with HF is extremely unreliable,” said Thoma.

Because of this, planes are required to fly in a fixed root when over seas, with 50 miles of separation between them and other aircrafts. According to Thoma, these set roots did not provide pilots with any room for strategic decision-making.

“They can’t deviate from that, and they call in every 15 minutes or so to air traffic control to let them know where they are. So they can’t make the best use of jet streams, or weather conditions to get the best fuel efficiency and best time slots going across the ocean,” said Thoma.

But now, with Iridium’s FANS 1/A technology, airplanes can move away from that flight track, according to McCormack.

“By having the ability to operate FANS and voice services together, because you have to have both, you are able to apply to change your flight track as you are flying and the navigation service providers are able to use the data link technology to more accurately know where the aircraft is, and therefore they can allow you to change your flight track as you are flying across the Atlantic,” said McMormack. “For example, the airlines always want to fly higher as they use more fuel because it is more efficient to climb as you burn fuel and that’s what this technology can allow.”

Not only that, but with this new communication technology, Iridium hopes to see a movement from flying at 50 miles of separation, to 30 miles, which will create fast lanes, and give planes using FAN 1/A “preferential routes and preferential timing…which results in a good savings for the airlines,” said Thoma.

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