Celebrating 25 years of FANS, the technology that revolutionised aviation

Inmarsat helped to create aviation history through innovation in air traffic management

Since the early days of commercial aviation, the only means of communication for aircraft flying oceanic routes had been High Frequency (HF) radio that uses line of sight or the atmosphere to bounce transmissions between pilots, air traffic controllers and airline operational centres. Pilots reported their positions to a radio operator who, in turn, relayed aircraft position reports over a telephone line to Air Traffic Control (ATC). HF radio was, and continues to be, problematic due to noisy transmissions caused by atmospheric conditions, as well as language barriers.

In the early 1980s, rising air traffic levels and higher fuel prices generated demand from airlines, governments and passengers for more efficient and reliable flights. To unlock the full potential of global aviation commerce, airspace capacity needed to expand to fit more aircraft in a given airspace, whilst maintaining and even improving safety.

Enter satcom – and Inmarsat

The aviation industry didn’t just flip a switch and become more efficient overnight. It took a variety of global stakeholders to open up the possibilities for future air navigation. As the only mobile satellite service provider involved in all these early International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) activities, Inmarsat played a critical role in the development of operational concepts for the future of air traffic management. After almost five years, ICAO published the first Future Air Navigation System (FANS) report in 1988.

In the report, ICAO concluded that satellite technology was the only viable solution that would enable international civil aviation to overcome the shortcomings of the then-current communication, navigation and surveillance systems and fulfill the needs of the foreseeable future. That’s why they called it “Future.” The key benefit that FANS enabled was real-time aircraft position updates and text communication between pilots and controllers through a common language. Language barriers disappeared, and texts arrived much faster than voice calls.

Fast forward seven years, and in June 1995, a Qantas 747-400 (VH-OJQ) became the first aircraft to certify the Honeywell/Boeing FANS-1 package by remote type certification (RTC) in Sydney, Australia. It was followed by the first commercial flight from Sydney to Los Angeles.

“As FANS celebrates its 25th anniversary, it remains one of the foundations of global aviation safety,” explains John Broughton, Inmarsat Aviation’s Senior Vice President of Aircraft Operations and Safety. “Inmarsat is proud to have been the only satellite provider deeply involved in early ICAO FANS activity, playing a critical role in developing the initial concepts and one of the key players in its implementation.”

Aeronautical satellite news front cover looking at FANS-1
Last meeting of the FANS II Special Committee in 1993

Inmarsat pioneers FANS 

At that time – and for years to come – Inmarsat was the only provider in the world with the capability and expertise to connect to ocean-going aircraft moving at 500mph via satellite. Having provided similar satellite safety services to the maritime industry for ten years prior, with our reliable global network, we were able to pinpoint planes anywhere on earth, enabling air traffic controllers to bring planes closer together, safely, and open up the skies to even more traffic.

FANS went on to be a revolution in aviation safety and efficiency over the following decades. It provides two functions critical to managing air traffic: communication and surveillance. By delivering surveillance with Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Contract (ADS-C) and communications with Controller-Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC).

More aircraft in the sky

FANS has made it possible for ICAO to lower its recommended aircraft separation standards from 100 nautical miles, to 30 nautical miles, to 23 nautical miles in 2016. And what’s more, in 2020, ICAO is scheduled to publish longitudinal separation of 20 nm using FANS, effectively expanding oceanic airspace capacity by over 500% and saving airlines billions of dollars over the following decades.

“What started as a nice idea – the use of satellites for navigation and communication purposes, has turned out to be one of the biggest advancements in air traffic management history,” explained Ghislain Nicolle, Inmarsat’s Senior Director of Commercial and Business Management, Aircraft Operations and Safety. “It has enabled the opening of new routes, shortened flights, reduced fuel consumption and increased airspace capacity. It’s now normal to see 2,000 to 2,500 North Atlantic flight crossings every day, all of which are FANS equipped. This would not be possible if we did not have far-sighted groundbreaking airlines like Qantas and United Airlines, as well as ANSPs that made the decision to support those first flights 25 years ago.”

Aviation consultant Helios found that the increased use of satellite communication in oceanic regions between 2001 and 2016 generated a $3bn benefit for the aviation industry. The study found that air traffic management benefits totaled $1.1bn, while the remaining $1.9bn was provided by improved communications between the aircraft and their operations centres.

The benefits of investment

Growth has been explosive. Today, Inmarsat provides aeronautical services to more than 13,000 aircraft (about one third to one half of which are FANS-certified), and to 90% of the world’s widebody fleet. Even better, FANS technology has paved the way for our continued innovation in aviation, as we’re now enabling airlines to maximise operational benefits and even reap new benefits from their current satcom equipage. The result is increased operational efficiency and cost savings without requirements for upgrades. Inmarsat is  investing in their network to ensure it meets the demands for higher performance. We call this programme Advanced Air Traffic Services (AATS) – essential upgrades to FANS infrastructure to assure required performance whilst providing expanded capacity and capability to support Air Traffic Services efficiency initiatives planned by air traffic service providers, ICAO, and regulators. This will allow for even further expansion of airspace capacity through reduced separation standards, thanks to Inmarsat’s enhanced network capabilities.

Inmarsat continues to offer FANS services today via our Classic Aero H+ and I systems and as of mid-2018 via SB-S using IP connectivity. SB-S also supports Iris, a programme led by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Inmarsat that brings powerful benefits to European aviation by enabling high-bandwidth, cost-effective satellite-based data link communications over the continent. It contributes to the delivery of the “Single European Sky”, which focuses on modernising air traffic management and air navigation efficiency, delivering on Europe’s commitment to lower CO2 emissions. As the programme expands over the next decade, Iris will bring numerous benefits to airlines, air navigation service providers, and passengers alike.

As a further example of how IP technology will deliver benefits in the future, the London School of Economics (LSE) recently published a report concluding that the IP-connected aircraft, enabled by satellite communications, has the potential to save airlines around $15 billion annually in operational efficiencies by 2035. This will enable all new capabilities for enhanced operations, including graphical weather, telemedicine, engine performance monitoring and predictive maintenance. We wouldn’t have satellite IP connectivity today were it not for the massive benefits we saw FANS deliver over the past 25 years.

“FANS opened up the skies using satellite connectivity, enabling real-time aircraft position updates and text communication between pilots and controllers in regions where other forms of communication were limited or non-existent, which in turn allowed for reduced separation standards that have dramatically increased airspace capacity. It was truly a catalyst for the explosive growth of global aviation,” sums up John Broughton.

“FANS technology and its two vital capabilities - position reporting with ADS-C and text-based communications with CPDLC, provided by Inmarsat’s Classic Aero and SB-S services - has been the cornerstone of oceanic aviation safety for more than two decades. This illustrates the great value of Inmarsat solutions for aircraft operations and safety, and underscores our continuous innovation and ability to deliver value to our customers.

“The ground broken by the people and companies that pioneered FANS 25 years ago now underpins a new generation of services, such as SB-S and Iris, which bring even more efficiency to the operation of airspace, allowing more flights with fewer delays and generating less carbon than ever before.”