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Nav Canada's next frontier is in space

Corporation bets $150-million on satellite-based plane-tracking system

A SpaceX rocket launched this month from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base carrying 10 satellites destined for near-Earth orbit, part of Nav Canada's ambitious plan to wrap the globe in a digital net.

The full constellation of satellites, numbering 66 by the summer, will track airplanes and give air-traffic controllers the precise locations of aircraft flying over 70 per cent of the world - oceans, mountains and remote areas - not covered by ground-based systems.

The system will be run by Aireon LLC, a venture of Nav Canada, the private non-profit company that operates the domestic civil air-navigation system. Nav Canada's partners on the project include satellite owner Iridium Communications Inc. and the air-navigation agencies of Italy, Denmark and Ireland. Another 24 national air-traffic authorities, including Portugal, Australia and South Africa, have signed up or made non-binding agreements to become customers when the system begins operating in 2018 or later, Nav Canada said.

With its network of satellites and ground stations, Aireon will transmit a plane's altitude, speed and direction to air-traffic controllers around the world, allowing aircraft to fly more direct routes with less distance between them.

This will save time, fuel and money and increase safety, says Neil Wilson, chief executive of Nav Canada.

"The signals give us real-time information as to where exactly the aircraft are," Mr. Wilson said.

"That ability to know exactly where an aircraft is significantly enhances safety and enhances our ability to provide more efficient flight routes and altitudes that is going to save our customers a significant amount of money."

Vincent Capezzuto, Aireon's chief technology officer, said planes will be able to fly more closely together in such fuel-saving routes as the Atlantic jet stream. Traffic controllers currently leave safety bubbles of about 100 kilometres between planes over oceans because they cannot be sure of their locations. This separation could shrink to 15 kilometres.

Faster planes will be able to pass slower traffic safely; the data amassed on global traffic could be used to highlight trouble zones and alter flight paths that have traditionally followed landmarks or radar installations, Mr. Capezzuto said.

"Airspace was designed as a function of where the ground infrastructure was located. Aircraft usually followed rivers, mountains and power lines because they were visible from the air," Mr. Capezzuto said.

"And what followed was radar and navigation aids - rotating lights and beacons, just like you have lighthouses for boats. Basically, you flew an indirect path to get somewhere because you follow these navigational aids. All that goes away. You don't have to think like that any more because we're looking at it from the flip-side - we're looking at it from space. Now you can fly from from point A to point B in a more direct path."

About 90 per cent of the world's planes are already fitted with the equipment that broadcasts their locations to ground-based receivers.

But reception of the terrestrial towers does not extend more than a couple of hundred kilometres over oceans. "We take the same ground stations and we put them up on satellites," Mr. Capezzuto said.

With a territory that extends from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean and the North Pole, Nav Canada is responsible for 12 million aircraft movements a year, the second-highest total in the world. The North Atlantic stretch is the world's busiest airspace, with 1,200 daily flights to and from Europe. Iridium says the system would have been able to find Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which is still missing three years after disappearing on a flight between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing.

Nav Canada is Aireon's biggest shareholder with a $150-million (U.S.) investment. Nav Canada's nonprofit status means any savings reached though the Aireon system will be passed along to its customers, airlines and pilots, Mr. Wilson said.

Executives at Nav Canada and Iridium said they are confident the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration will sign on as a customer, pointing to recent funding approved by Congress for work on the project.

The FAA and Aireon ran a successful test flight using the system in March, in order to compare it with ground-based data in areas with high traffic density and signal interference. In a statement, the FAA said Aireon has "huge potential for improving services for many around the world who lack some surveillance or advanced separation tools, and we are independently validating that their space-based ADS-B service meets FAA established performance requirements for broadcast surveillance."

The FAA did not respond to e-mailed questions on Thursday, Friday or Monday.

In addition to hosting the Aireon technology, the new satellites will replace the Iridium satellites that have been orbiting the Earth for 20 years. These are same satellites Iridium has been using to power its network of satellite phones and other devices. (Formerly backed by Motorola, Iridium's $1.5-billion bankruptcy followed the launch in the late 1990s.)

Space is hot right now, as billionaires Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson race to commercialize space travel.

The Aireon system will undergo extensive testing before it can be proven effective. But some of the biggest risks the company faces begin right on the launch pad.

Iridium's satellites use rockets owned by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the company backed by Mr. Musk that has had two rockets explode since 2015.

None of the mishaps has involved Aireon equipment, but the risks are never far from the minds of the system's architects, most of whom have witnessed the launches first-hand.

"You build systems and then they have to survive that transport into space and they have to be ejected into where they have to go," Mr. Capezzuto said.

Each satellite is worth more than $30-million, including research and development. "If you want to multiply that by 10 for each launch you can see why I'm so nervous every time," said Matthew Desch, CEO of McLean, Va.-based Iridium. "There's a lot of satellites and costs riding on the top of a SpaceX rocket. That's why we built 81 [satellites] instead of just 66."

The eyes above

Nav Canada's Aire on system will use satellites launched by Iridium to track planes as they fly over parts of the world not rcached by radar or other means. Currently, air traffic controllers predict aircraft movements over oceans and remote areas by relying on pilots to * check in by radio every IS minutes or so.

COVER ME Iridium plans to launch the last of the 66 satellites in the Aireon constellation by the middle of 2018. Several of the world's air navigation bodies have already signed up as Aireon customers.

MORE CONTROL, MORE EFFICIENCIES When traffic controllers know the precise location of air traffic, they can permit them to fly closer together, on more direct routes. This saves time, fuel and money.

Associated Graphic

A SpaceX rocket with ten satellites for Iridium Communications Inc. launches in California. The new satellites will give air-traffic controllers the precise locations of aircraft flying over 70 per cent of the world.

IAN DUDLEY/AP

© The Globe and Mail

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