By Andrea Shalal-Esa
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (Reuters) - Satellite operator Iridium Communications and Harris Corp on Wednesday said a new space-based aircraft-tracking venture will save airlines money, but also holds promise for the U.S. military, which is facing a sharp downturn in spending in coming years.
Iridium and NAV CANADA, the Canadian air navigation service, have formed a joint venture, Aireon LLC, which will put special sensors on all 66 new Iridium NEXT satellites to track aircraft over oceans and other "global blind spots" beginning in 2015.
Don Thoma, president and chief executive of Aireon, told reporters that the venture created the largest hosted payload agreement, and would leverage investments already being made by airlines around the world, Iridium, and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
He said the new space-based tracking system would save airlines an average of $450 in fuel costs for each transatlantic flight by allowing them to fly more optimal routes. Aireon is negotiating agreements to sell the new service to NAV CANADA and other air traffic control agencies around the world.
Speaking at a space conference hosted by the Space Foundation, Thoma said Aireon was also in active discussions with the FAA about the new tracking capability, but the U.S. agency was not expected to sign a contract for about 18 months.
He said Iridium decided to work with Harris on the venture because it had used high-end sensors on satellites in low-earth orbit, about 4.5 miles above the earth, to collect data for U.S. intelligence and other government agencies for 50 years.
Bill Gattle, vice president of aerospace for Harris, said the payload being added to the Iridium NEXT satellites still had room for three additional plug-in sensors, which would allow the government to carry out space-based missions for far less cost than building and launching a dedicated satellite.
Janet Nickloy, director of aerospace mission solutions for Harris and chair of the Hosted Payload Alliance, an industry group, said U.S. government officials were clearly interested in exploring such missions, especially given mounting budget pressures. "Our energies are aligned," she said, citing a "very collaborative" relationship with the U.S. military.
Industry executives have been promoting hosted payload deals for years, but the U.S. government has moved toward use of government sensors on commercial satellites only very slowly given concerns about how to secure control over those assets, and possible security risks.
However budget cuts may accelerate moves in this direction, according to industry executives and government officials.
Air Force officials this week underscored the need for new approaches to space acquisition since spending is going down. They say such deals could help ensure continued capabilities if existing U.S. government satellites run into problems.
They say some missions might be better suited for hosting on commercial satellites, with extremely sensitive missile warning and secure communications missions likely to remain wedded to government satellites.
Sensors monitoring weather in space and on earth might be a good initial use of such hosted payloads, officials say.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)