ESA has announced the completion of the first four test flights using Iris Precursor, the test version of the Iris satellite communication system that in a few years should allow airplane cockpit crews to exchange digital messages with air traffic controllers in any position they are.
The Iris project is being developed as part of the European Union SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research) program. These test flights are part of a collaboration between ESA and the British satellite operator Inmarsat to provide satellite links to airplane crews. The ultimate goal is a leap forward in the management of the continental air traffic.
In essence, the system recognizes the airplane in flight in 4D: latitude, longitude, altitude and time, allowing a complete monitoring of the flight and keeping in continuous connection the pilot with ground control. The idea is to have a traffic control much more efficient than the current one managed by radio but also more secure because the location of an airplane will be monitored with considerable precision.
In this first phase of testing, an airplane departed from Amsterdam carrying a prototype of an Iris terminal connected to the Inmarsat SwiftBroadband-Safety satellite system. This connection was tested thoroughly in the course of four flights to different destinations in Europe through communications between air traffic control and the airplane crew.
Other test flights had already been carried out in March 2016 by the aerospace company Airbus in partnership with Inmarsat and other participants to the project. Together, they established an initial phase of controls in 4D and communications between pilots and air traffic.
The next test flights are expected by the end of 2017 with a second phase that will aim to validate the Iris system technologies. If all goes well the systems will starte being used in commercial flights. Iris Precursor should begin to provide air-ground communications services by 2019 with 4D monitoring. Among the satellites involved in the system there will be those of the Galileo constellation, the European equivalent of the GPS, which came into operation very recently.
In the end, all aircraft flying in European airspace will be equipped with an Iris terminal/transponder but it will take a few years. It’s a long process and already in March 2012 ESA presented an interactive screen as part of the Iris project. It’s needed to make air traffic management more efficient and safe.