Insight | The quest for aviation sustainability


The quest for aviation sustainability


Satellite technology can play a significant role in lessening aviation’s carbon footprint. Our Iris programme is a prime example…

Global warming, climate change, environmental catastrophe… these are all concepts that the world’s citizens have become intimately familiar with over recent years. And while this existential threat to humanity is something that we have all contributed to, it’s clear all industries have a major lead to play in – literally – cleaning up their acts.

Take aviation. The industry is often perceived to have something of an environmental problem. According to the latest figures, aviation is responsible for 2.5% of the world’s annual CO2 emissions. And when all the effects of aviation are factored in, its total impact is thought to be closer to 3.5%.

However, the sector is being proactive in mitigating its effect on climate change. The industry has initiated a raft of long-term strategies to reach carbon neutral targets involving electrification, research on hydrogen fuels, new engines, and ultimately, new aircraft. 

That’s encouraging news and better yet, the industry can also adopt existing technologies to boost these ongoing efforts. As part of Inmarsat’s commitment to reducing the effects of man-made climate change, there are a range of satellite technologies available today that can assist in reducing these emissions. Speaking on Sky News recently, our Chief Executive Rajeev Suri outlined how existing satellite technologies can save up to 5.5bn tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

“Space is the great overlooked opportunity for decarbonisation,” he said. “So often ignored by policymakers, it’s rarely featuring as a central pillar in sustainability strategies.”

Across key sectors such as energy, agriculture and forestry, and transport and logistics, Suri explained that the universal adoption of existing satellite-enabled technology could result in a staggering 5.5bn tonnes of carbon dioxide reductions a year. The modernisation of Air Traffic Management (ATM) for instance can realise a host of reductions and savings, and while more work needs to be done across all industries in the long-term, Suri is quick to note that existing technologies can be utilised now, thus buying those longer projects time.

Inmarsat’s involvement doesn’t begin and end there though. We recently took part in a new documentary series for Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), producing an episode highlighting aviation sustainability via satellite communications. This forms part of an ongoing relationship with ATAG that includes its Chief Executive Michael Gill appearing at our FlightPlan broadcast events during the pandemic, where he argued for climate change remaining at the heart of all post-recovery strategies.

Watch 'Skies of Tomorrow' documentary

In this episode of Air Transport Action Group's (ATAG) 'Skies of Tomorrow' documentary series, we learn how the space above us, can protect the space around us, where Inmarsat’s innovative approach to satellite communications can help the fight against climate change.  

The efficiencies of satellite communications

The primary role of satellite communications in aviation is to ensure passengers and crew get from one airport to another safely. However, satellite communications delivers much more than this. As our CEO mentions, these same networks in space are helping aircraft cut millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions every year. Optimising navigation and weather are significant methods of reducing aviation’s impact – ensuring the aircraft takes the most efficient route can remove unnecessary fuel burn and congestion.

Inmarsat is the primary communications network for over 90% of transoceanic airliners. Our global networks allow aircraft to be seen over the ocean where there is little radar coverage. Thanks to this connectivity, air traffic controllers can reduce separation minima to safely provide access for more aircraft to benefit from these more efficient altitudes, which maximise tail winds across the Future Air Navigation System (FANS) routes, resulting in less fuel burn.

Iris and the modernisation of ATM

This is just the beginning. For the last few years we have been working on a number of solutions that will modernise aviation practices – in particular ATM – and subsequently provide even more opportunities to reduce climate change. 

Iris our ground-breaking programme with the European Space Agency (ESA), and an integral component of this modernisation, will enter commercial service in 2023. Powered by our innovative and award-winning ELERA network, Iris is a space-based communication datalink solution that will relieve the pressure on ground-based VHF communications.

The secure satellite datalink delivers high-speed bandwidth for real-time communication, allowing aircraft, and their 4-dimensional time-based predicted trajectories, to be shared with air traffic controllers for more precise and efficient flight operations. It will also alleviate pressure on ground-based radio frequencies currently used for ATM communications, which will be under significant capacity stress in the next 5-10 years. 

By providing an uncongested communication service, Iris enables the latest ATM standards to be available to Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) and airline pilots for improved, modernised ATM. Iris delivers - Air Traffic Network (ATN) IP-based protocols that enable 4D trajectory-based operations and extended projected profile (EPP) to deliver CO2 savings on each Iris connected flight. These technologies enable safer constant-descent approaches (CDA), avoiding the less efficient ‘dive and drive’ traditional method of approach. CDAs are also considered safer as they remove ‘stepdowns’ which require multiple thrust, pitch and altitude adjustments - increasing pilot workload and potential errors during a critical phase of flight.

A win-win for airlines and passengers

Subsequent emission savings could be substantial. EUROCONTROL estimates 5-10% emissions reductions for universal ATM modernisation, with Iris providing around 1.5-3m tonnes of COreduction per year between 2024 and 2040, reaching up to 6.5m tonnes by 2040, as highlighted in our new report ‘Can space help save the planet?’.

“We estimate that it'll (Iris) save a cumulative total of 27 to 55m tonnes of CO2 by 2040,” explains our Aviation President Niels Steenstrup. “This is pretty significant. It is equivalent to the carbon emissions output of a major European city such as Seville or Florence for a whole year.”

easyJet will be the first airline to take advantage of Iris, with full deployment of the service set for Q1 2023, and full commercial service availability due later in the year.

There’s more exciting news too. Originally a European initiative, Inmarsat and ESA recently signed a contract to ensure Iris is available globally through our ELERA satellite communications network. This means any airline in the world can begin to reduce its carbon emissions – a fact that should be of particular interest to airlines that operate in dense and congested airspace, like China, Singapore and India for example.

Iris is a win-win for the aviation industry and passengers alike. Quicker, more direct and efficient flights can help build the industry’s green credentials – and assist in reducing costs too as less fuel is burned. It also makes for a better passenger experience. And this should never be overlooked. Indeed, as passengers become increasingly focused on things like sustainability this will become a deciding factor in which airline they fly with. Those airlines that can point to clear sustainable strategies stand to win out.

UAVs and a catalyst for environmental innovation

Our efforts in trying to mitigate the effects of climate change don’t begin and end with commercial aviation. Utilising Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) can bring about positive environmental benefits too. The widespread delivery of cargo along regulated corridors with Electric Vertical Take Off and Landing (eVTOL) will also help reduce emissions as cargo is taken off traditional transport routes such as road and rail.

A recent Cranfield University report, UAVs: unlocking positive transformation in the  world, found that the use of UAVs in freight delivery can result in a 47% reduction in COemissions when compared to current freight transport operations.

UAVs stand to completely transform the world in which we live. In the coming years, they will empower an inspiring array of industries and deliver positive humanitarian, environmental, societal and, of course, commercial benefits. 

These benefits, however, can only be realised through technology that ensures commercial UAVs can fly safely in complex and mixed airspace. This is where Inmarsat and our 30 years of experience ensuring aviation safety via our extensive satellite network comes in. Inmarsat Velaris will provide the reliable and consistent connectivity solutions that will allow UAVs to fly securely Beyond Visible Line of Sight (BVLOS) and integrate with other air traffic.

Anthony Spouncer, Inmarsat’s Senior Director of Advanced Air Mobility, says that around 10 million commercial UAVs will be flying in mixed airspace by 2030. Of those, Cranfield estimates 600,000 will require BVLOS. “That's a tenfold increase in airspace usage within the next eight to 10 years,” he says. “The existing industry can't scale up that quickly. So we need to be bringing solutions that scale, that are less dependent on infrastructure, that are digitised, that are modern. And we believe Inmarsat is well-placed to provide them.”

A transformation that will save the world

We take our sustainable goals very seriously. We understand that organisations don’t always find it easy to pivot as quickly as they’d wish. This is why we’re taking a proactive role in supporting aviation in this transformation and helping the sector as a whole reach Net Zero targets. 

Iris has a considerable role to play – and we’re proud that today, Iris-capable terminals are already available on major platforms, including Boeing, Airbus and Comac. Iris is at the heart of our decarbonisation strategies, and it also supports operational efficiencies thanks to its data-driven applications.

Space sustainability is just another part of this drive towards positive environmental change. We are committed to a Net Zero equivalent in space and contributing towards a more sustainable value chain for all.

Our Chief Strategy Officer, Fredrik Gustavsson, concludes: “Throughout history technology has been able to solve great problems for the good of the world. As we face one of the biggest threats to our existence – and certainly this generation’s most pressing danger – satellite-enabled navigation technology has a vital role to play. Iris might not be the whole solution to solving aviation’s decarbonisation problem, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. And it’s a step the industry can take now.”