Metro Aviation has begun initial flight testing of IRIS, a comprehensive flight data monitoring, tracking and communications system that promises to improve the safety of helicopter missions. Using the ViaSat network of geosynchronous satellites, IRIS is designed with push-to-talk, uninterrupted voice communications and flight tracking in 10-second intervals. Metro proposes to harness the excess available bandwidth to transmit data that normally would be accessible only from an onboard recorder after the flight has concluded—such as the aircraft’s pitch, roll and yaw and the health of its engine and electrical systems. When a warning is triggered in flight, experts on the ground can choose which data to receive, conduct an analysis, and potentially troubleshoot the problem before it endangers the pilot.
The initial tests are being conducted on an Airbus Helicopters H135. Once the process has been ironed out, additional flight testing will be conducted on a Sikorsky S-92.
Metro is experimenting with positions on the helicopter for IRIS’s antenna unit to maximize satellite reception, which historically has limited the practicality of helicopter satellite systems. In addition to the problems created by vibrations and flights in poor weather, a helicopter’s spinning main rotor blades present a physical barrier through which reception is further degraded. It remains to be seen whether Metro will find an ideal position for the antenna or innovate a more high-tech solution. One such innovation is the Helicopter Satellite Communications System developed by Mitsubishi Electric Corp., which uses intermittent signal bursts timed to pass in between the main rotor blades.
Another way around the problem is to do away with geosynchronous satellites entirely. The OpenPort system used by Bristow’s SAR fleet connects with the Iridium low-Earth orbit constellation, permitting antennas to face outward toward the horizon. Only ViaSat’s constellation, however, currently achieves the signal bandwidth necessary for IRIS’s robust data transmissions.
IRIS is being developed by Metro following its acquisition of North Flight Data Systems and Outerlink Global Solutions. Ahead of its introduction to the market, IRIS already has attracted customers such as Med-Trans and REACH Air Medical.