Skykraft seals NZ partnership to deploy satellite system for safer air travel over remote Pacific

Skykraft seals NZ partnership to deploy satellite system for safer air travel over remote Pacific

Skykraft satellites orbiting above Australia. Illustration by Tony Bela. 

Canberra-based space services company Skykraft has announced a partnership with Airways New Zealand to deploy a satellite system it says will improve air traffic safety over the South Pacific.

The partnership aims to offer real-time contact between aircraft and air traffic controllers across vast areas of remote airspace, mostly above the southern oceans, that are currently not serviced for commercial carriers.

Airways New Zealand manages 30 million square kilometres of airspace over New Zealand, the South Pacific, Southern Ocean and the Tasman Sea. The area is considered one of the world’s largest geographic airspace regions, behind that of mainland Australia and the US.

Skykraft, which specialises in the design, manufacture and operation of satellite constellations for the delivery of global services, is currently in the throes of launching a constellation of satellites for space-based air traffic management services this year, with a view to starting commercial operations in 2024.

The services combine an air traffic surveillance system and a very high frequency (VHF) radio communication system that effectively extends the reach of VHF to areas that are currently covered by older technologies.

Skykraft launched five satellites from Florida, via SpaceX, in January this year with plans for further launches later this year and in early 2024.

Skykraft plans to use its satellite constellation to gather data on aircraft movements and then test it against the data held by Airways New Zealand to prove and refine its technology before going live.

The service will provide surveillance and instant communications between aircraft and control towers while in flight.

“Not only does Airways New Zealand manage New Zealand’s airspace but it provides most of the high-level services throughout the South Pacific,” Craig Benson, Skykraft’s chief innovation officer, tells Business News Australia.

“Through our system, the planes are in constant voice and data contact with the air traffic controllers as opposed using satellite communications traditionally which need to get patched through and are much more cumbersome. Currently, it can take anywhere from five or six minutes to make contact when planes are over the ocean and this obviously affects safety.”

Benson says the next 12 months will allow Skykraft to refine its systems, which will be bolstered by future satellite launches, including another five in mid-2023 and a greater number expected in early 2024.

Skykraft sees the latest partnership as a major step forward in air safety for the South Pacific region.

“The memorandum of understanding allows us to work with Airways New Zealand, a world-leader in air traffic management, on a proof-of-concept demonstration of Skykraft’s world-first combination of space-based air traffic surveillance and VHF radio communications,” says the Skykraft chairman, Air Vice-Marshal Skidmore.

“It’s a great opportunity for an Australian space company and New Zealand’s air navigation service provider to use new technology to make flying across the Pacific and the Tasman even safer and more efficient.”

Airways New Zealand has welcomed the collaboration that it says will drive the evolution of the next generation of air traffic management services.

“We look forward to contributing our experience managing one of the largest airspace regions in the world, and to exploring how we can integrate space-based air traffic management with our existing infrastructure,” says Katie Wilkinson, the general manager of air traffic services at Airways New Zealand.

“Skykraft’s satellite-based VHF radio communication system will be a key element in the proof-of-concept process and has the potential to create a step change for aviation.”

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