Azure IoT Technology helps NAV CANADA revolutionize air-traffic control

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Each day thousands of planes rumble down runways and rise into the sky, bound for destinations across countries and continents. As they fly over land, most of this complex network of active aircraft is under the surveillance of air traffic controllers across the world.

Once a plane flies over the ocean, however, things change, and the limitations of traditional radar and other ground-based air traffic surveillance systems such as Automatic Dependent – Broadcast (ADS-B) become apparent. Ground-based systems have a range of about 200 miles, leaving large gaps in surveillance coverage all over the world.

Considering that more than 70 percent of Earth is covered by water, not to mention remote mountains and desert regions, where ground-based systems are difficult to install, large passenger jets commonly fly in unsurveilled airspace. In such airspace, pilots make regular reports of their location to air traffic control by voice or text using radio communications.

In this era of satellite, cellular and GPS, Canada’s civil air navigation services provider NAV CANADA was determined to find a way to solve problems like these. Long known as an innovator in air-traffic control technologies, NAV CANADA has deployed the highly accurate (ADS-B) system in over four million square kilometres of remote and northern airspace beginning in 2009.

ADS-B represents a major improvement in aviation safety, but still largely relies on ground-based stations. To continue to close those gaps in visibility across the globe, the system needed access to the sky itself, so NAV CANADA partnered with Iridium Communications, a satellite communications outfit that was planning a full generational refresh of its existing constellation of more than 70 satellites. Together the organizations formed a new joint venture called Aireon. Since then, ENAV, the IAA and Naviair, the air traffic control providers for Italy, Ireland and Denmark, have come on board as key partners in Aireon.

This year, Aireon is installing ADS-B sensors as payloads on each of those satellites and plans to offer surveillance services to air traffic control providers around the world. With ADS-B now broadly deployed in many countries around the globe and many commercial aircraft already equipped or being retrofitted with ADS-B avionics, the company is working to ensure that the location of every plane can be monitored in real time, no matter where it is flying.

And when it comes to the larger impact of the ADS-B system, monitoring is just the beginning. Extending the Internet of Things (IoT) to track planes is opening the door to massive opportunity for aviation related companies. Commercial aircraft using ADS-B will be able to send a constant stream of rich data while in flight through Aireon’s systems to receiving stations on the ground, creating a new source of insight and efficiency that could benefit the entire aviation industry.

That’s where Microsoft Azure IoT technology is lending a hand. Aireon quickly realized this enhanced flow of data would require massive computing power and highly scalable storage. Azure offers a scalable, secure environment with affordable computing power on demand.

As the initial constellation of satellites is launched, Aireon will examine new ways to manage and commercialize its streams of highly accurate global flight data to benefit the flying public, the aviation industry and related travel services.

Greater efficiency and flexibility of routes and flight plans is one area where the system has potential to create value. Due to those traditional limitations in air traffic control, aircraft on the same track today must be separated by 80 nautical miles longitudinally and 30 nautical miles laterally, or one full degree of latitude, limiting the number of planes that can fly along a specific corridor.

With precise and 100% surface coverage, enabled by Aireon’s satellite based system, the aircraft separation standards along those corridors could potentially be reduced, allowing for more flights at peak times while giving airlines more flight planning options along the more efficient routes.

Rich data from IoT-enabled planes could also be used to optimize routes and take better advantage of conditions, such as prevailing winds, reducing fuel costs dramatically. Aireon estimates those savings could potentially be in the tens of millions of dollars annually, with a corresponding reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as well.

But first and most importantly, their solution is a dramatic advancement in safety. Being able to track ADS-B enabled aircraft across the entire surface of the earth with increased precision means Air Navigation Service providers like NAV CANADA can offer more efficient and safe services to the airlines customers they serve and to the flying public as a whole.

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