IRIS - Satellite Communication for Air Traffic Management


IRIS satellite communications

Iris contribution to ATM benefits:

ATM benefits of Iris
Figure 1. Iris contributes significantly to the overall ATM modernisation benefits

The satellite-based Iris system is ready to be a key element in a successful European implementation of Data Link Services for Air Traffic Management (ATM) in Europe and beyond, and is now looking at becoming a global solution.


Iris is a Data Link Service (DLS) satellite system, funded and promoted by the European Space Agency (ESA) in partnership with Inmarsat and industry. See Iris White Paper .

Iris is based on Inmarsat’s existing infrastructure:
•    I4 geostationary satellites (I6 coming soon) 
•    SwiftBroadband –Safety (SB-S) technology that is already approved for oceanic use and will be extended for use in continental airspace. 

Iris will provide Data Link for Air Traffic Service (ATS), referred to as ATN B1, ATS B2, ACARS (CPDLC & AOC), voice and Airline Operational Communications (AOC), including IP connection for EFB, in one single system. 

Today Iris is the only mature technology able to complement the existing terrestrial solution (VHF Data Link Mode 2 or VDL-m2), offloading the excess traffic in a multi-link (or dual-link) fashion. 

In line with the SESAR Joint Undertaking (SJU) ATM Master Plan, Iris was designed not only to comply with standards and performance requirements for ATS communications (RCP 130 and RSP 160 for ATS B2), but also to enhance safety and security and to support data-hungry AOC services. It is easily scalable with the potential to meet future needs.

An Iris capacity study, carried out by the Iris consortium in line with SESAR Deployment Manager assumptions, has indeed confirmed that Iris has sufficient capacity, by large margins, to support both the volume of data expected to be offloaded from VDL2 and the increased traffic anticipated in the coming years.

Furthermore, Iris supports ADS-C applications (extended projected profile - EPP), as key enablers for i4D to deliver route optimisations, reducing delays and avoiding air traffic congestion. Consequent fuel savings and related reductions in CO2 emissions result in a much better flight efficiency, and a better experience for passengers. 

Overall, Iris represents a secure, reliable and cyber resilient solution, with cyber resilience to malicious attacks, and meets the availability and performance requirements required to support ATS services. The satellite offers immediate coverage across Europe and has scalable potential to  become a global service, as well as supporting  data hungry services.

A high-level diagram of the Iris end-to-end system is shown below, highlighting the highly secured Iris link, including authentication and message integrity features.

High level diagramWhile Iris is ready to interconnect with the Common European ATM infrastructure, developments are on-going to enable compatibility with ATN-IPS standards and technology.


European airspace is one of the most congested in the world. Despite the heavy impact of COVID-19 on the world economy -including on the aviation sector - the number of flights is expected to return to 2019 levels by 2023 and is still expected to reach the anticipated 50% forecast increase by 2050.

The existing terrestrial infrastructure (so-called VDL-m2) is  exhibiting clear difficulties in reaching the due Data Link Services (DLS) performance levels and will face a capacity shortage by 2024 – 2027, if not sooner. 

ATM modernisation is essential if Europe is to achieve the digital transformation and green deal goals prioritised by the European Commission.

Developed for ESA by a world-class industrial consortium, led by Inmarsat, Iris contributes to the European Commission’s (EC) Aviation Strategy, unlocking benefits for the aviation community worldwide. Iris will contribute to modernising ATM, and increasing flight safety and operational efficiency, as is also highlighted in the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) “ATM Master Plan”. 

Furthermore, Iris will play a key role if ATM modernisation is to achieve the European Green Deal target for a carbon neutral aviation by 2050.
Aviation is in fact currently responsible for 3-5% of the European Union’s total green-house emissions and more than 2-3% of global emissions. Within the transport sector, in 2019, EU-27 aviation emissions amounted to 146 Million Tonnes CO2, 14% of the total transport emissions. Iris will contribute to the attainment of  the net zero emission target of 2050 (and mid-term 2030 goal for -55% emissions with respect to 2019) by enabling 
•    more efficient flight routes 
•    real-time information sharing 
•    optimised airline operations

Detailed analysis is being carried out to quantify Iris CO2 savings, which are expected to be, on average, in the order of several Million Tonnes of CO2 per year in Europe over the 2024-2040 timeframe. This will ,result in cumulative savings of up to 40 Million Tonnes CO2 by 2040.

View/download green paper:  Iris Green Value - How ESA is harnessing satellite technology to reduce aviation emissions
Additional benefits for the airlines derive from  real-time information sharing, which will enable aircraft health monitoring and optimised inventory, resulting in optimised maintenance scheduling.

Iris therefore represents a win-win solution: airlines will harness more sustainable flights, reducing excess fuel with resultant cost reduction, while passengers will experience fewer delays and an improved service, together with a lower footprint for their air-travel.


The results achieved so far draw on the involvement of leading European institutional stakeholders (EC, SESAR Joint Undertaking, SESAR Deployment Manager, EASA and EUROCONTROL). 

ESA is committed to continuing this cooperation with European institutions in support of the Single European Skies policy, set by the European Commission (EC). To this end, ESA has signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with the SESAR Joint-Undertaking (SJU), the SESAR Deployment Manager (SDM) and EASA to guarantee the Iris is compliant with the required standards and regulations. 

The Initial Operational Capability phase (started in 2018) will deliver the remaining activities to bring Iris into operational service by 2023. 

An agreement has in fact been signed with EasyJet to start equipping the first aircraft in November 2022 and to begin pre-commercial flights in early 2023. Both ATN and IP-based connectivity for AOC will be demonstrated and discussions with other interested airlines are progressing.

Furthermore, ESSP has been pre-selected by Inmarsat to deliver the certification and service tools as a “technical” service provider and applied to EASA for the certification in Dec 2021. 

By Q3 2023, the Iris service provider (ISP) will be certified by EASA and the service will be operational. 

In the meantime, Inmarsat has signed agreements with major ANSPs to support early implementation: a total of 13 ANSPs have so far joined the project.

Iris technology has already been fully validated and included as solution #109 of the SESAR catalogue. 

In preparation for the pre-commercial flights, additional validation activities have been carried out within ESA’s Iris Programme through flight trials performed by Airbus, Boeing and NLR, demonstrating that Iris meets target ATM performance requirements. 

Major ATM stakeholders already recognise that SATCOM is one of the most mature solutions available today for complementing VDL2 in the short to medium term, and has strong potential to support global ATS air-ground communications in the long term.

From a regulation point of view, EASA has recognised Iris technology as a potential means of compliance to the Data Link Services Implementing Rule (EU DLS-IR, 29/2009) conditional to meeting the corresponding performance requirements (ED-120).


The next step of the ESA Iris programme, Iris Global, has just started. The Iris Phase 3 or Iris Global contract was signed in June 2022. It will target the finalisation of service delivery tools, enhancing the system elements for the long-term Full Operational Capabilities system (beyond 2028) and supporting expansion outside of Europe. The Iris Global will also finalise the development of an ATN/IPS compatible system and include support for other use cases like RPAS and future satellite systems.  

In particular, this next phase, which kicked off in June 2022, will include the following main streams:
1.    Integration of Iris system into the European ATM Backbone Network
2.    Enhancement of Iris with CNS Services
3.    System FOC and technology development
4.    Iris as the Global Solution Beyond Europe

Maintaining Europe’s  leading position in this process with a united European front will give European industry a competitive advantage compared with other world players, whilst also making a significant contribution to common global aviation goals.

Iris signing
Iris Global – signature event: The signing ceremony was attended by ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher, ESA Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications / Head of ECSAT Elodie Viau, ESA TIA Head of Telecommunications System Projects Office, Antonio Garutti, Inmarsat CEO Rajeev Suri, and UK Space Agency CEO Paul Bate.

Related links:

Iris Green Value - How ESA is harnessing satellite technology to reduce aviation emissions

Iris Capacity Assessment

easyJet signs up for space-enabled digital skies

Iris system to digitalise airspace goes global

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