Inmarsat’s Iris to begin flight testing next year

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Earlier today, the European Space Agency (ESA) signed an agreement with leading satellite communications company Inmarsat to begin flight testing its air traffic program Iris. Noted to be ‘phase two’ of the program’s development, Iris will be tested on aircraft in a real work trail starting next year, 2020.

Inmarsat ESA Iris Programme Phase Two
Philip Balaam, Inmarsat Aviation President, and Magali Vaissiere, ESA Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications, sign the contract for phase two of the Iris air traffic modernization program. Image: Inmarsat

John Broughton, Senior Vice President of Aircraft Operations and Safety Services at Inmarsat, said in a press release,

“We are very excited to embark on the next phase of Iris with all of our partners. Important progress has already been made on various critical elements and, as a result of strong industry-wide interest, several important agreements have been signed with major European ANSPs, aircraft manufacturers and airlines. Today’s agreement brings us another step closer to delivering the Iris program.”

Commercial flight testing

The flight testing will equip approximately 20 aircraft working in a commercial environment, which will be monitored over a six month period. This will allow Inmarsat, the ESA as well as participating ANSPs to see how Iris performs in a real-world scenario.

Inmarsat has indicated that participating airlines have been selected but remains tight-lipped on any details of who they are or which aircraft will be tested. However, they did tell us that,

“Iris will be tested on a variety of aircraft for assessment purposes. These will primarily be narrow-body, short haul aircraft flying over continental Europe as a first step.”

Inmarsat Iris
Iris aims to make ATM safer and more efficient. Photo: Inmarsat

Magali Vaissiere, Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications at ESA commented on the forthcoming testing, saying,

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“Flying this technology for six months on some 20 aircraft brings years of research and preparation closer to fruition. We are a step closer to making real the highly anticipated idea of a modern air traffic management system over Europe. We look forward to seeing the results of the commercial flight demonstrations, and the environmental and operational benefits that Iris will bring to Europe’s congested airspace.”

As well as the real world testing of Iris, Inmarsat and ESA are developing a European wide certification of the service, along with working towards distribution agreements for the future. Inmarsat’s other partners, including Thales Alenia Space, are undertaking research and development prototyping in order to prepare for future air traffic control requirements.

ANSPs on board

Earlier in the year, we reported that France’s DSNA, the nation’s Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP) had joined the program to become the sixth ANSP involved. DSNA joined along with Germany’s DFS, ENAIRE (Spain), ENAV (Italy), NATS (UK), and Eurocontrol MUAC (consisting of Northwest Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) to support the development of Iris.

Iris program
The Iris program has six ANSPs on board. Photo: Inmarsat

All six ANSPs are in the midst of an Initial Operating Capability (IOC) pilot with the ESA and Inmarsat to understand the develop the capabilities of the system. This latest phase in the testing will move things on swiftly, with the ANSPs able to see how Iris works in real-world scenarios.

The Iris program

The Iris program has been under development since early 2018. The project looks to use Inmarsat’s extensive satellite network to enable four-dimensional air traffic management in European airspace. Currently, as air traffic continues to grow, the legacy air traffic management systems are nearing breaking point, and will not remain fit for the future for much longer. Iris looks to build a high bandwidth, cost-effective satellite-based datalink across all of Europe, as part of the delivery of the Single European Sky.

These real-world flight tests mark an important phase in the development of Iris, and demonstrate that Inmarsat’s groundbreaking modernization of the way air traffic is managed and controlled in Europe is on target for a 2021-22 launch.

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