Why the last frontier of aviation is becoming its new doorway

Space – the ultimate frontier of our days, much in the same way the vast and treacherous waters of the Atlantic used to be in the age of discoveries. Or so it was. Just like in the age of information and knowledge, little remains today of the romantic, free cashflow-ingesting space programmes championed by the Cold War rivals that pioneered many of the technological breakthroughs of the twentieth century.

Today, in a competitive and liberalised market, accessing earth orbit presents no major challenge for commercial providers. And while the past decades have seen a timid penetration of space-based services in the transportation market, the current prospect shows satellite technology maturing rapidly and becoming a serious contender for numerous applications that previously escaped its capacities.

The key enablers

What makes satellite technologies especially well-suited for transportation applications is their unique ability to provide service with little or no need for on-site ground infrastructure. This makes them especially appealing thanks to the lower cost involved in deploying them compared to equivalent terrestrial technologies, as well as the dramatic improvements in operating expenses, something that has historically hampered their broader adoption.

This results in a two-prone value proposition. On the one hand, satellite technologies can provide a cost-effective and easy to deploy baseline capability where there is limited scope for ground-based options. On the other, they can also support high-performance services to supplement and eventually replace costly terrestrial infrastructure in the context of rationalisation efforts.

This multirole value proposition is well reflected in the three main domains of satellite-based services:

  • GNSS can provide worldwide positioning for applications requiring only moderate performance. However, when augmented with either space or ground-based signal correction, it can match current terrestrial positioning systems, such as aviation navaids, providing exceeding flexibility and resilience.
  • It is also the case of SATCOM technologies, which have long been the sole means of supporting data links in remote areas, but are set to offer increasingly higher performance communications supporting both data and voice with high reliability.
  • Having an ‘eye in the sky’, as enabled by earth observation constellations, is also essential to understand how rapidly-changing phenomena, such as weather, may disrupt operations. Higher performance imaging technologies, as well as more powerful downlinks and high volume data processing, are making it possible to leverage unprecedented awareness in real time.

Aviation-specific applications and their impact

Aviation is widely recognised as an early adopter of satellite technologies, mainly through its leadership in the fielding of GNSS-enabled performance-based navigation (PBN) procedures. The possibility to rely on satellite-based guidance, as opposed to costly ground-based navaids, has resulted in unprecedented possibilities for small and regional airports to offer safe and flexible all-weather instrumental procedures with only minimal investment, as well as to put in place contingency measures for ILS-equipped aerodromes. As such, standalone GNSS guidance has proven to fit a market gap for baseline positioning where the performance of terrestrial alternatives is unrequired, and their costs prohibitive.

The polyvalent applicability of satellite technologies, however, also means that GNSS augmentation can make space-based positioning a real alternative to high-performance ILS. This is the case of certified SBAS-enabled procedures that are starting to see a widespread application in Europe and elsewhere. By providing vertical guidance and integrity awareness, they can support low visibility, complex approach procedures in a similar way to ILS CAT I. But the high-end transformation is poised to become a reality with the widespread certification and implementation of GBAS, or ground-based augmentation. Although GBAS requires local terrestrial infrastructure, this has consistently proven less costly to maintain than ILS, and its performance can match and exceed even that of CAT III systems, while catering for flexible approach procedures beyond the possibilities of ILS.

The short-term future suggests that satellite navigation will become increasingly central in air navigation, as acknowledged by ICAO’s Global ATM Operational Concept. This will be supported by the improved resilience and performance possible in a multi-constellation, multi-frequency environment where multiple independent GNSS constellations operate together.

Data communications has been provided by ACARS for decades now, however, since 2010, ICAO has accelerated its work towards the standardisation of satellite communications for the provision of ATM services, including advanced crew-ATCO communications, as well as surveillance solutions such as space-based ADS-B.

Commercial SATCOM providers have responded to this opportunity by making a decided bet to launch new products oriented at supporting dedicated certified services. This is the case of the Iridium NEXT and Inmarsat 6 constellations, which are set to support low-delay communications and provide a real match to current ground-based VHF voice and data communications.

While the former is aiming at leveraging its work within SESAR to tailor its Inmarsat 6 constellation to ATM requirements, Iridium has taken the bold step to partner with European ANS providers to offer worldwide coverage for space-based ADS-B. Under the Aireon brand, such a solution will transform the visibility that ATC currently has in vast ocean sectors, making it possible to reduce separation between aircraft, as well as providing a safe fall-back measure for well-served ground-controlled airspace.

The earth observation market is likewise set to provide unprecedented access to high performance imaging commercially, and in many cases, free of cost. Programmes like the EU’s Copernicus are aimed at putting such services at the reach of the public, but their strongest potential may reside in business-support applications. Together with big data-class processing and analytics intelligence, as well as a capable communications segment, The necessary information may be made available to the required stakeholders in real time, allowing higher efficiency of operations and enhanced safety.

Future trends

The penetration of space-enabled solutions and services to aviation such as those described previously, as well as to other fields of transportation and logistics, is only set to increase thanks to the current confluence of a range of technological developments. These will not only enable wider penetration, but also accelerate the development and deployment of future more advanced technologies. These are, for example, the advent of lower-cost space launchers, swarming constellations of nano-satellites, high-throughput satellite (HTS) communications, or a multiconstellation and multi-frequency GNSS environment, to name but a few.

The need for a clear strategy

It is hardly deniable that satellite-enabled technologies present tremendous opportunities to transform transportation as we know it today, by providing high performance positioning, broadband communication links or high resolution earth observation. Their foothold in aviation is only set to grow in the short term, with enormous potential in the long run.

This presents the opportunity to rethink the existing operational concepts, and makes it crucial to assess the disruption that such technologies may bring about through previously unavailable flexibility, reach and capacity.

However, this is not a trivial question. It requires an in-depth analysis truly understand the value proposition of each of these technologies and their adequacy for each market and geography. This can only be achieved by adopting a holistic approach that takes into account operational dynamics, technological capabilities and the existing regulatory framework to identify the best-suited candidate, before quantifying the real costs and benefits.

ALG, in cooperation with its mother company Indra, is participating in the SESAR programme, with a key participation in defining the operational concept for GBAS. It has also advised other European regulatory agencies on their strategy to deploy and leverage satellite technologies, including the use of SATCOM for rail with the European Railway Agency (ERA), and the strategy for ADS-B and PBN in Europe with the European GNSS Agency (GSA).

About the authors
Rubén Martínez is MSc in Aeronautical Engineering and Director at ALG
Germán Meyer is MSc in Telecommunications Engineering and Manager at ALG
Gonçal Berastegui is MSc in Aeronautical Engineering and Consultant at ALG
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