March 25, 2019
Executive Take: Satellite-Based Surveillance is Enhancing Canadian Air Navigation
January 2019 marked the beginning of a new era in air traffic surveillance with the eighth successful (and final) launch and deployment of the satellite constellation hosting Aireon space-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) payloads. As an investor, a partner and the first customer to sign up for this revolutionary new service with Aireon, NAV CANADA is rolling out services in the Edmonton and Gander flight information regions, using this ground-breaking technology.
In advance of this monumental first for global air navigation surveillance, we took the opportunity to speak with Rudy Kellar, Executive Vice President, Service Delivery, about the Company’s initial involvement with Aireon and what space-based ADS-B means for our air navigation services, going forward.
Can you take us back to the beginning and tell us how NAV CANADA initially became involved in this exciting new venture?
In 2009, we started having general discussions about when we might see surveillance from space. Then in 2010 we learned that a company called Iridium was exploring space-based ADS-B. So, it wasn’t very long after that we contacted Iridium and had the very first meeting.
In fact, I was recently discussing with Don Thoma (Chief Executive Officer, Aireon LLC) the beginnings of Aireon. On May 24th, 2011, before Aireon existed, a very small group of us met with Iridium, where Don was working at the time. He and a couple of his colleagues floated the idea of how Aireon would work. We all saw the opportunity very quickly. We had follow-up meetings and the momentum really picked up after that. It has all developed at high speed since then – perhaps not at the speed of the satellites (smiles) – but high speed from there to where we are today.
NAV CANADA has always been at the forefront of change among air navigation service providers (ANSPs). What were some of the opportunities envisioned by NAV CANADA with this venture?
The opportunities we saw then, and now, are centred around the predictability of aircraft movements, flexibility, and the reliability of this surveillance versus our ground-based equipment. With enough satellites in space, moving at the speed they do, with the surveillance overlap they provide – it really demonstrates reliability that we can’t get from radar. Having this reliable surveillance will allow NAV CANADA to drive the benefits of high-level surveillance down closer to the ground in all our sectors and provide consistency. The opportunities generated by this company-wide consistency, are directly related to air traffic services staff being able to provide enhanced safety and alerting information with our services. The opportunities for our customers were identified early on. This was really going to contribute to a significant reduction of green house gas emissions and provide savings in aircraft operating costs.
The predictability that space-based ADS-B offers will be key as we move towards a world of business-based flow management. Everyone will want precision door-to-door, let alone airport-to-airport. So, having the satellite signals updated faster and covering the global traffic will play a critical role as we move forward. Though we saw all these opportunities at the time, our real focus was on what it would mean for our airspace that didn’t have surveillance coverage – Gander Oceanic and a big percentage of Edmonton’s Arctic High specialty – not to mention the impact globally where coverage would change from roughly 30% of the earth to 100%.
NAV CANADA’s initial implementation will be focused on domestic airspace in the Edmonton and Gander Flight Information Regions. What made these the ideal regions to begin the rollout of services using space-based ADS-B?
As I’d mentioned, we didn’t have surveillance in large areas of these two regions, and they are the only regions without high-level surveillance. By high-level, I mean approximately 23,000 feet and above. There’s a sector in Edmonton airspace that crosses into Greenland with surveillance that is controlled airspace from 18,000 feet and up. A lot of the other parts of this airspace is 28,000 feet and up – so that’s the obvious reason.
There’s also three sectors in Edmonton that will receive different types of value from space-based ADS-B. One is a Pacific flow and a separation standard from Anchorage to Edmonton Centre that has some constraints due to the current lack of surveillance. So, the use of space-based ADS-B will generate a fairly quick gain for our customers, our controllers, and our shared traffic management with the FAA on that border. The second is the polar sector, with North Pole and other high Arctic entry points into Russia for air traffic. Growth has been unprecedented in long haul aircraft, the new generation 787, etc., using those routes, but surveillance today is limited at about 60 degrees north and beyond. So, to get full coverage from 60 degrees to 90 degrees, allows for a large increase of surveillance allowing a reduction in separation standards which is significant when handing off aircraft into Anchorage and/or Russia. And the third is the impact in other Edmonton sectors with their current reliance on ground-based equipment that is very hard to service and maintain.
As for Gander, as you know, a large part of the ocean is without surveillance. But our folks in Gander and our Engineering team have matured their air traffic management systems so that giving them surveillance now will allow them to change the dynamics of how oceanic air traffic management works, taking them from a very safe process today to an even safer process tomorrow, with full surveillance. All this is happening at a time when, according to ICAO, it’s forecasted that traffic over the ocean will increase at a rate of about 3.4% per year until 2032. With Gander and Shanwick flight information regions already near maximum capacity, the timing of space-based ADS-B implementation couldn’t be better to support that growth.
The introduction of 100% global air traffic surveillance will revolutionize operations for ANSPs around the world. What does the implementation of space-based ADS-B mean for the future of our own ANSP?
It comes back to consistency and improved predictability. I think what it means for our ANS, is that space-based ADS-B is one of the key enablers for us to bring overall consistency to air traffic management and air traffic control – consistency to airspace in which we have historically had to handle air traffic control through a combination of procedural methods and surveillance. This new surveillance method will allow a lot of our air traffic management technologies to be adapted to provide better human/machine interfaces, alerts and awareness to ensure enhanced safety and separation. This enabler also allows us to introduce consistency to controller training and procedures improving the success in developing our people and providing our service. Globally we have yet to learn about all it’s future capabilities related to the data produced and how people use it.
The implementation of space-based ADS-B comes with significant benefits for the Company and for our customers – especially, like you said, with regards to consistency and predictability. Can you explain what some of the other significant benefits will be?
Currently, there is so much that we do differently, from one location to another, that will eventually be aligned across the board. So, from a human factors point of view, this is significant. It means putting the right tools in front of our air traffic controllers and enhancing safety.
And it will enhance safety for our customers too. Travel today in Gander Oceanic works well with GAATS Plus (Gander Automated Air Traffic System, used for air traffic management over the North Atlantic), but it is reliant on 15-minute updates on each aircraft’s position. By getting regular position updates, multiple times per second, the collision risk modeling that we have done now demonstrates that oceanic air traffic control can meet the target level of safety set by ICAO. That is significant in risk reduction as well as setting up the opportunity to allow for better, more efficient trajectories over the ocean, crossing traffic, et cetera.
As well, this will provide significant benefits to search and rescue and alerting services through Aireon Alert. This is a free service for locating and tracking ADS-B equipped aircraft globally in emergency situations. It was never originally part of the business case, but we’ve seen the significant value of the tracking data on some recent incidents and accidents.
Can you talk a little about Fusion and its connection to space-based ADS-B?
Other than the United States and Russia, NAV CANADA probably has more radars than any other country. The idea behind Fusion (a commercial off-the-shelf technology that NAV CANADA acquired and adapted) was to replace our legacy Radar Data Processing System Re-host (RDPSR) which has been in operation for about 20 years. Challenges arose due to the age and type of some of the equipment that we have in the field. But George Wright (Manager, ATM Surveillance Systems) and his team persevered and adapted this product to be able to take all of the surveillance sources available – radar, multilateration (MLAT), wide area multilateration (WAM), space-based ADS-B – and fuse these sources so that the air traffic controller sees a single target that looks the same from the air traffic management perspective. Fusion has been a huge enabler to move space-based ADS-B forward onto our situational displays and in the area control centres.
And as a senior leader at NAV CANADA, can you tell us what’s next on the horizon? What are your hopes for the continued evolution of the Company?
That’s the exciting part. Essentially, Aireon, or space-based ADS-B, along with the advancements in our air traffic management technology have now positioned the Company and its people to really consider the transformation of air traffic management. In effect, we have been doing things in similar ways since the 1944 signing of the Chicago Convention, which is 75 years old this year. I think that we will be able to consider handling air traffic management differently, now that we will have more predictability and flexibility through our systems and traffic surveillance. We will see our service delivery mature to the point where we have a much different type of collaboration with the airlines, with air crews, and with the air traffic control or air traffic management aspects of our business. It will be a very different way of providing air traffic management in my mind, in years to come. There is still lots to do!