The space race is on for air traffic control

In the latest issue of Air Traffic Management magazine we’ve covered a lot of topics related to upper airspace and the management of that traffic. One thing that was outside of the scope of these topics was how air traffic control and ultimately air traffic management could be helped by communications in space. Specifically low earth orbit satellites.

SESAR members and industry partners have launched a consortium to demonstrate the feasibility of using low-orbit satellites to provide voice communications for communications with aircraft while over the ocean. The goal of the project is to show how spaced-based communications, navigation and surveillance technologies can help to optimise air traffic. In addition, the goals would be to increase safety and reduce the carbon footprint for these flights.

The current problem is that ground-based radars only reach about 350 kilometres off of any coastline.  This means that ATC can no longer see these flights on their radar systems when they travel beyond this point. Today ATCOs use high frequency radio and data link communications to track aircraft positions. Although these connections allow for safe separation of aircraft and communication with the cockpit onboard, there can be high levels of latency resulting in time lapses in both directions.The new SESAR JU programme is called VOICE (“Reduced separations and improved efficiency based on Vhf cOmmunICations over LEO satEllites). This is a two-year programme to demonstrate how ATM can benefit from the use of low earth orbit satellites for higher bandwidth and lower latency communications. The goal is to show that communications can occur at the same rate of frequency as when an aircraft is over land. Space-based ADS-B will be incorporated for surveillance in order to ensure adequate separation between aircraft.

Focal Point Preview Image


VOICE is funded within the framework of the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement 101017688), and its participants include Indra (Coordinator), Enaire, EUROCONTROL, GOMSPACE A/S and GOMSPACE Luxembourg. Indra and Enaire have published their first announcement on this topic as the progress has already begun.

Three use cases will be tested during the program with interactions from cross-border operations between adjacent flight information regions (FIR) from different countries. The tests hope to show the feasibility of ATCOs communicating real-time over 1,500 kilometre distances. The three use cases are:

  • Use Case 1: Use of satellite VHF for voice/data and space-based surveillance technology called automatic dependent surveillance–Broadcast (ADS–B) without terrestrial coverage;
  • Use Case 2: Use of satellite VHF for voice/data and ADS-B as a means of contingency/delegation;
  • Use Case 3: Use of satellite VHF for voice /data and ADS-B exchange in terrestrial airspace.

This program will be interesting to track as there are bound to be many lessons learned that can also translate into future plans for support of Upper Class E traffic management or ETM.