Commercial, Connectivity

Airframers look to Modularity to Future-Proof the Connected Aircraft

By Juliet Van Wagenen | June 9, 2016


[Avionics Today 06-09-2016] Representatives from Boeing and Airbus are looking toward new aircraft systems, standards and satellite designs to enable adaptable In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) solutions in the future. During the 2016 Global Connected Aircraft Summit, which took place this week in Los Angeles, California, the representatives said that airframers can look to support evolving iterations of IFC by supporting modular architectures on their airplanes.

Ingo Gathje, vice president and head of cabin and cargo innovation at Airbus and Boeing’s Faye Francy, executive director of Aviation Information Sharing and Analysis Center (A-ISAC) during the Airframers Panel at the 2016 GCA Summit
Ingo Gathje, vice president and head of cabin and cargo innovation at Airbus and Boeing’s Faye Francy, executive director of Aviation Information Sharing and Analysis Center (A-ISAC) during the Airframers Panel at the 2016 GCA Summit. Photo: APEX

Increasing modularity means moving toward integrating systems on aircraft with a number of components, including hardware and software, that may be mixed and matched in a variety of configurations. These systems can connect, interact or exchange resources, such as energy or data, by adhering to a standardized interface that is presumably customized for each airline and aircraft, and can be re-configured to support new systems as they arrive on the market.

“Now, the question of introducing new capabilities, such as streaming video, is not all about bandwidth, it is also about usage of data,” said Ingo Gathje, vice president and head of cabin and cargo innovation at Airbus. “What we need to do as an airframer is make a commitment to the airlines to go through the specification so that we can modulate the interfaces and the architecture itself, so we have the opportunity to mix and match the software and the equipment to [an airline’s] specific needs.”

When it comes to expanding bandwidth and capacity while decreasing latency, Gathje called attention to how new Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite constellations might contribute. This includes the opportunities that will be enabled by the new LEO constellation OneWeb, which includes a plan for more than 700 small satellites to deliver worldwide broadband connectivity. Already, Gogo has contracted for capacity to bolster its bandwidth offering for aircraft, alongside Intelsat’s multi-layered Ku-band capacity EpicNG high throughput Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) satellites.

“It is not only a question of bandwidth but also a question of latency,” said Gathje. “In Europe, we are ... looking forward to new LEO satellite systems and we know that our new mobile phones — Blackberries, iPhones, whatever — and these kinds of devices can connect over a satellite constellation in the future during flight,” Gathje said.
Issues with cybersecurity, certification and regulation are still holding the aviation industry back, however, from adapting to new technology as quickly as it evolves and providing a “home-like” internet experience in the air.

“We are in a very changing dynamic here. We have to realize that we need to have more bandwidth in order to do the things that people want to do, which we are working toward and are having some conversations today in getting there. But as we look at that we need to realize that there are some limitations in aviation that don’t allow us to move quite at the speed of light as the technology is and to recognize that there are some security issues,” explained Boeing’s Faye Francy, executive director of Aviation Information Sharing and Analysis Center (A-ISAC).

While connectivity on airlines could still use a boost, Gathje said that making adaptable technology is more than about getting new tech onto aircraft sooner rather than later, and more about ensuring Wi-Fi remains profitable for airlines.

“Let’s not forget that we are trying to provide connectivity in the worst environment possible,” said Gathje. “We have to focus on new technologies to communicate with the aircraft and within the cabin ... but this for me is not the biggest issue. The biggest issue for me is that we really understand the business model of the airlines and we get the right requirements to provide a platform that is easy for us to certify that is configurable and can change with the airline in time.”

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