Motorola launched the $5 billion Iridium system in 1997, but the spinoff company was bankrupt by early 2000, done in by a combination of heavy phones, outrageous rates ($8 a minute) and cheaper, lighter, global roaming cell phones. The new owners bought Iridium for a throwaway $25 million and are looking for new ways to put the globe-circling ring of satellites to work.
What's next? Iridium has proposed to U.S. aviation authorities that its satellites be made the backbone of a real-time aircraft tracking system in which equipment installed in cockpits would alert ground monitors when a plane deviates from its planned course and transmit what's going on onboard. "Basically it's no different from those poor people on the planes picking up the phone in the seat in front of them and telling their families what was happening to them, except it would be automated," says Boston air safety consultant John King. "Why not use this technology to save some lives?"