US company Aireon planning to launch 66 satellites to cover large area, including NZ

Airways is investigating a new space-based air traffic control system that would supersede radar but says it will keep a land-based backup system.

The state-owned air traffic controller, which suffered what it called an "unprecedented" radar outage last month, has signed an agreement with a United States-based company that plans to launch a cluster of satellites this decade.

Airways has signed a memorandum of understanding with Aireon, which describes itself as the developer of the world's first space-based global air traffic surveillance systems.

Airways chief operating officer Pauline Lamb said Aireon planned to launch 66 satellites that would allow tracking of all aircraft over a huge area, including New Zealand and the Pacific Ocean.

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Satellite tracking helps keep watch over aircraft at present in limited areas of New Zealand, in Queenstown and Auckland.

About 90 per cent of aircraft are equipped to communicate with satellites now and this coverage was growing.

"The way we look after oceanic airspace is that we clear aircraft on particular routes and make sure they are separated and periodically aircraft report so we can tell where they are and track them," she said.

With the new technology the low orbit satellites get signals and transmit them, creating the same environment as in the existing land-based system, allowing second by second tracking.

"It would allow us oversight and surveillance over the whole Pacific Ocean and over the islands in particular. From a safety perspective it would be an enhancement and from an efficiency perspective it allows us to reduce the distance between planes over the ocean as well."

Lamb said at present aircraft have to be separated between about 55-100km but this would come down to 16km with satellite tracking.

However, there would need to be failsafe systems in place.

The Air Line Pilots Association represents air traffic controllers and it is "in the main" supportive of the advancement .

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"However, it is the land-based system that integrates the data and ultimately displays the information to a controller and that needs to be equally advanced, technologically capable and robust to ensure that there were no failures like the recent one," the association said.

Lamb said the cost of joining the Aireon system would be substantial and other satellite providers were being studied.

The June 23 radar failure investigation is continuing.