ESA sees satellite-based air traffic monitoring on near horizon

EURIALO project aims to prove flights can be tracked in real time through multilateration

The European Space Agency (ESA) has awarded a contract to a US company to create a technology demonstrator for a proposed aircraft monitoring system using low Earth orbit satellites.

Spire Global, headquartered in San Francisco, won the €16 million ($17.6 million) agreement for the EURIALO project, which aims to prove that a satellite-based system can monitor aircraft in flight for air traffic management purposes, without relying on any existing systems.

The company already operates a constellation of nanosatellites that are used to observe the Earth in real time at radio frequencies, providing data to inform global weather intelligence, and ship and plane movements, according to Spire.

The EURIALO project intends to demonstrate the viability of using satellites to track aircraft by determining in real time the aircraft position based on timing the arrival of radio signals detected by multiple satellites, a technique known as multilateration. The radio signals in this case will be standard telecoms radio signals already routinely broadcast by aircraft.

Current monitoring systems largely rely on self-reported positions of aircraft, which are typically obtained from satellite navigation systems. The objective of EURIALO is to provide a complementary tracking system that can feed location data to existing air navigation service providers for integration into their services.

Ultimately, this could help track planes in real time from takeoff to landing anywhere in the world and could more speedily locate aircraft in the event of an emergency. It isn't clear whether such a system would have helped in the infamous case of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, which went missing in 2014, as the aircraft's transponder was apparently switched off mid-flight, as was the Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS).

Under the terms of the contract, Spire will develop a design for an operational satellite constellation then deploy and operate a demonstrator mission that proves the performance of the service. It will head up a consortium of other companies as part of the project, including European Satellite Services Provider (ESSP), which was founded by seven air navigation service providers and is based in Toulouse, France.

"We are honored to be selected by ESA to lead the development of this first-of-its-kind aviation surveillance system demonstrator," Spire Global CEO Peter Platzer said in a statement, adding: "Space-based aircraft tracking and geolocation is the future of air traffic management to ensure safe, secure and sustainable air travel at a global scale."

The project framework is part of ESA's program of Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems (ARTES), and is apparently chiefly funded through the German Space Agency.

"ESA has a long track record of supporting companies that use satellites to improve aviation safety, security and sustainability, ensuring European autonomy and improving the lives of European citizens by creating jobs and prosperity," said ESA acting director of Connectivity and Secure Communications Javier Benedicto. ®

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