Satellite-based communications is a vital part of airspace modernization initiatives around the world, notably NextGen in the United States and SESAR in Europe. Satellite service provider Inmarsat recently was granted approval for safety services over its SwiftBroadband network, which the company says will pave the way for a new generation of smaller, lighter and less expensive avionics that will provide safety voice and data functionality while simultaneously offering high quality voice and IP data connectivity for non-safety applications.
In a recent Avionics Magazine Webcast, NextGen for Swiftbroadband Services, Inmarsat and satcom equipment provider Cobham discussed the challenges and opportunities these next-generation satcom systems and services can provide to aircraft operators.
Dale Irish, head of aviation product management, Inmarsat: Inmarsat Aviation, or Aero Services, has roughly 15,000 aircraft that currently rely on global in-flight connectivity from Inmarsat. Very widely used within the industry, we’re a standard fit on nearly all widebody aircraft delivered by Airbus and Boeing. And, there’s also quite a healthy retrofit market with Inmarsat satcom systems being installed. We currently operate on 10 geostationary satellites, which Inmarsat owns and operates from our headquarters in London. We also own and operate a ground network, with earth stations around the world.
The approved safety services are operated on Classic Aero, which has been in operation since the early ‘90s. Inmarsat has just finished a major renewal of the ground stations around the world. This concludes a major investment in the 2012-2013 timeframe to ensure that these stations operate well into the future. In addition, we are currently engaged in a program to take those safety services and put it on our new high-speed SwiftBroadband digital product.
2013 was a big year for us. I mentioned the new Inmarsat grounder stations for Classic Aero. Those are now up in operation, and we’ve transitioned aircraft onto those stations. We launched a new satellite called AlphaSat. It’s also termed our fourth, Inmarsat-4. So that provides us an in-orbit spare satellite, and we’re currently going through in-orbit tests of that new satellite. And everything’s gone very well.
And finally, we’ve received confirmation of a major European Space Agency program, which is going to help us take our safety services from our current oceanic domain into something we call continental. So much more performance, much higher availability requirements, and lower latency, to enable techniques such as I4-D trajectory management.
Future Air Navigation System (FANS), which is widely used, is essentially being driven by efficiency and modernization within the oceanic domains. What it really enables is more and more aircraft are flying what we call Great Circle routes. By having this communication media, aircraft are allowed to be flown closer, reduce separation. It also enables what we call dynamic rerouting of tracks, depending on weather changes. The bottom line is that the efficiency benefits justify the install and operating costs. We’re seeing a high degree of aircraft utilizing FANS in both the North Atlantic, and especially in the Pacific, where the benefits are so great.
The current need within the oceanic domain is what we call 30-by-30 separations to enable the aircraft to fly on these ideal tracks. That’s our current target, which we are working to achieve. But in the future, with the additional investment that we’re putting into what we call our continental services, we’ll be working to 5 to 3 nautical-mile operations in the future. So again, this is an area of investment for us and investment with the European Space Agency and the national administrations behind that.
The use of FANS is driven by the efficiency gains. There are also mandates that are driving the FANS equipage. As we look forward, we envision a world where soon only a small minority of long-range aircraft will fall outside FANS control. This is really the direction that air navigation service providers (ANSP) are going. The ANSPs have continually been looking to initiatives to improve flight efficiency, and there have been a number of trials that have been done by individual ANSPs or groupings. And they show that increased ADS-C reporting rates have demonstrated various benefits to both the separation, also for vertical separation improvements, and to enable a variety of techniques, all that are designed to improve airspace efficiency and fuel benefits to the airlines.
Andy Beers, director, aeronautical sales for the Americas region, Cobham: I think the word of the day is efficiencies. Everybody’s looking to, especially on the air transport side, modernize. But again, there’s always the cost involved. What can I do on the return on the investment? They’re certainly setting a situation up where, in order to leverage all these things, that there’s got to be a way to do that without expending a lot of money and being able to make a return on the investment. And I think that’s just driving the opportunity to find smaller, lighter and faster at a lower cost. …
I think the first wave of connectivity for air transport has kind of happened. And I think that there are, naturally, for the cabin, if we’re speaking about the cabin right now, that need for a very large data connectivity pipe is evident. You’ve got a lot of passengers that want to have a lot of access. They want to have a lot of bandwidth to do a lot of things.
But I think beyond that first wave of connectivity, there’s a second and possibly third wave of some very segment-driven needs for connectivity. Maybe regional airlines or other airlines that don’t need that or want to have both a large pipe for the cabin but also want to have connectivity that’s separated from the cabin for the flight crew. I think there’s a lot of opportunities for L-band and others to coexist, especially when we’re talking about the safety services aspect, which we know those large pipes will not serve.
Additionally, I think there’s a tremendous amount of opportunities there for segmentization. We actually did a project for an airline that put a current SwiftBroadband satcom system on to do one specific task, and that’s all that system does. So I think that’s an indication for me, and for all of us, I think, to see that if there’s a need to do something and it needs to be done over beyond line of sight data link, that if the price is right, the avionics is small enough, that there’s certainly a potential to meet something as niche as just one single function.
I think there’s a much broader opportunity spectrum out there for connectivity to meet all those different domains, and it won’t always be just as simple as for the cabin. It’s going to be the large pipe, and for the cockpit, it’s going to be L-band.
To listen to the complete version of this Webcast, please visit www.aviationtoday.com/webinars/2013-0923/