Nav Canada and Iridium are partnering on a project that will bring satellite-based air traffic surveillance to areas of the globe with no coverage, starting with crucial North Atlantic routes.

The two companies are forming a joint venture called Aireon, which will provide surveillance data from a new constellation of satellites being launched by Iridium Communications. It will use automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), but unlike existing ADS-B systems it will require no ground stations. Because of this, the system will be the first to provide surveillance data for remote oceanic airspace.

Nav Canada CEO John Crichton tells Aviation Week the system represents a “paradigm shift in navigation.” As well as helping set up the joint venture, Nav Canada will be its first customer. It intends to provide coverage to the North Atlantic airspace it manages, which covers the bulk of the traffic between North America and Europe.

The satellites will be launched from 2015, and the constellation is due to be fully deployed by 2017. By that time there will likely be many more air navigation service providers (ANSPs) signed up for the Aireon service, Crichton says.

Iridium CEO Matt Desch says FAA is very interested in the system, although the agency would more likely be a customer than a partner. The ANSPs involved will lead the certification efforts.

The data will be transmitted to a central facility, and sent to ANSP customers. Desch says this system is intended to “complement and not replace” current ground-based systems and is ideally suited to the 90% of the globe where there is no existing radar or ADS-B coverage. However, ground-based systems are preferable in dense traffic environments, Desch adds.

On the North Atlantic service, Nav Canada expects to receive test data from 2015 when the first satellites are launched, but it will not see full operational use until 2017. More efficient air traffic control will lead to fuel savings of more than C$100 million ($98.2 million) a year, according to Nav Canada.

Nav Canada has been a pioneer in ground-based ADS-B systems. It installed a network to cover the Hudson Bay region in 2009, and it also has a network on Canada’s northeast coast. Crichton says these systems have already paid for themselves through efficiency savings, and they will remain in place after the Aireon data is available.

So far, Iridium and Nav Canada have an agreement in principle regarding the joint venture, with a formal agreement expected soon. Aireon is intended to be a profit-making entity, Crichton says. The level of Nav Canada’s investment in Aireon is not yet being revealed, although more details of the arrangement will be announced in coming weeks.

Iridium is expected to be the majority shareholder, and others may be added.

The ADS-B receivers will be a hosted payload on Iridium’s NEXT communications satellites. Desch says Iridium has invested about $3 billion in the constellation of 66 satellites. Harris Corp. and ITT Exelis are technology suppliers.