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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Connectivity’s Next Step

By James W. Ramsey

The market for in-flight connectivity has been a bright spot for the business jet community marred by years of economic and PR hits. And as the economy begins its slow turnaround, the technology evolutions in this segment means lower price points to install these systems onboard and new upgrades allowing for faster speeds and better performance.

But the high speeds aren’t enough; the reliability of systems is a top priority for business jet customers, particularly as the range of these new aircraft builds increases. “At the top of our customer’s list is the ability to communicate with the outside world, so certainly Internet connectivity is key,” says Matthew Noel, product planning manager for Bombardier’s Global aircraft family. “After that, the reliability of the connection is very important.”

Many avionics OEMs, including Rockwell Collins, Honeywell, Thales, Aircell, Gogo, Flight Display Systems, and others, are manufacturing these systems for all types and all ages of business aircraft from the VVIP business jets down to the smaller aircraft. And new service offerings on the way, including expanded air-to-ground networks and Ka-band satellite networks, will expand the service end of the equation even further.

“Before having Internet connectivity, when traveling to Europe, we would leave in late evening in order to have a full day in the office and the passengers would try to sleep on the plane, be there in the morning and go to work. Now that we have Internet, we leave in the morning, they work all day on the flight over, and when they get to Europe go to a hotel and get a good night’s rest,” according to Richard Murphy, manager of corporate aviation services for a Gulfstream operator in the San Antonio area. Murphy’s firm, which operates three Gulfstreams (G450/550s) uses three different connectivity systems — two aircraft have Aircell Gogo Biz and Swift Broadband, and one uses the ViaSat Yonder broadband system.

New Aircraft

Virtually all new aircraft builds in the pipeline have connectivity capabilities onboard, either as standalone systems or as part of a integrated cabin management system (CMS).

The baseline system on the Bombardier Global 5000 and 6000 business jets is a single Swift Broadband system capable of speeds up to 432 Kbps, using a high-gain antenna, tail-mounted in a radome. Options include provisions for a second Swift Broadband system, or ViaSat Ku-band connectivity.

The Globals’ system includes a Wi-Fi built into the aircraft, “so you can with your own iPad or iPhone control the entire cabin system, everything from the lights to the window shades, to the movies and audio,” Noel says. While connectivity is certainly high on their list, customers want access to entertainment features, and want to be comfortable, he adds.

For its Learjet family, Bombardier has several options, including a Swift Broadband system using an intermediate-gain antenna that allows speeds up to 300 Kbps. As for future systems, offering higher speed Ka-band connectivity, Noel says the company is “closely monitoring this technology to see how best we can use it to serve our customers. Not all customers are willing to go to higher speed if it reduces the reliability of the system,” he adds. “When we monitor activity, we make sure we hop on the connectivity that makes sense.”

Cessna’s Citation 10, Sovereign and M2 aircraft will include its Clarity cabin management system. The Clarity system will also be aboard its mid-size Citation Latitude, announced last October, and its stretched version, the Longitude, announced last spring, which are still in development.

Clarity “is what we call an ‘infotainment’ system,” said Gary Sauber, manager of cabin technology and development. “On the 10 and the Sovereign you will have the display and the user interface at each location, and from there you can see music, listen to music or the XM radio system, get weather reports, and listen to the cockpit com,” he adds. Those customers adding the high-speed data plan on their aircraft will have a browser providing Internet access.

Clarity offerings, including a moving map, are also available through a passenger’s personal electronic device via a Wi-Fi system. The wireless portion will be an option on the M2. The Clarity wireless portion works without the addition of HSD. The moving map, designed by Cessna, has unique features, allowing passengers at seat location to “zoom in, or do the things you want.” (Aircell products are used in Clarity’s system both for phone and high-speed data, Sauber says.)

Aircell’s Gogo systems which utilize an air-to-ground network in the continental United States are offered as a factory-installed option or are dealer-installed on a number of bizjets including Gulfstream, Cessna, Dassault and Embraer models.

Aircell also provides Swift Broadband, called Aviator 200 or 300/350 systems, to several of the airframe OEMs, including Cessna and Gulfstream.

Aftermarket

The aftermarket is where a good portion of connectivity installs are occurring, with operators increasingly choosing to upgrade the systems they have on their current aircraft, rather than buying a new aircraft.

“A majority of what we see in the aftermarket tends to be along the lines of Aircell (ATG-5000) air-to-ground systems. Those include Internet/e-mail capabilities, voice and data communication. We see them on the King Air 200s and 300s (turboprops) as well as the Hawker 400s, 800s, 900s and 4000s,” said Mike Turner, product manager of global customer support, for Hawker Beechcraft, Wichita, Kan. “On the King Air 300s, the Aircell package is an option which can be factory installed. Everything else we do is aftermarket.” He explains while some post-delivery installations do occur, most installations are retrofits done after delivery.

Equipment and installation costs are too high to provide connectivity systems for smaller aircraft, such as the Baron 658 or Bonanza Extra, Turner explains. “Even our C90 King Airs don’t see any of these installations,” he says. It costs upwards of $65-70,000 to put the equipment on, and there is an additional monthly charge for data plan, he points out. Turner’s organization of late has been certifying Wi-Fi installations. “As long as you purchase a system like the Aircell, you can set up the Wi-Fi network within the cabin, and then you have the same functions you have at home. You can use laptops or PDAs and share media and data,” he says.

Service centers such as Duncan Aviation are actively installing connectivity systems on business aircraft. “The big one for us now is the domestic Aircell GoGo Biz system. We’re approaching 300 installations right now, over the past four years,” says Chad Ostertag, avionics installation sales representative, who is based at Duncan’s Battle Creek, Mich., facility. Duncan is also installing a number of satellite-based systems as well as many as 20 of them in the last year alone, he says. While most of these are going on larger bizjets (Gulfstreams, Global Express, and larger Falcons),”we’re also putting some of the smaller Inmarsat systems on some of the smaller aircraft Bombardier Lear 60s, and Challenger 601s and 604s,” Ostertag says. “There are some smaller antenna solutions that make it possible to put these on other aircraft.”

Jet Aviation St. Louis, Inc., is finding retrofit installation of connectivity systems “a major source of revenue for us,” says David Loso, manager of avionics sales. The past year, the firm has done some 40 installations of Aircell and Swift Broadband systems. A number of them has gone on Global Express and several on Challenger 604/605s and 300s, and on Gulfstreams, Falcon 900s and Hawker 800s. Jet Aviation has also installed several ViaSat Ku-band systems.

On the larger jets, “we have been interfacing the (Aircell and Swift Broadband) systems together, so the passenger has a single wireless access point and then the system switches automatically between SBB and Aircell based on the availability of the Aircell signal,” Losa adds. “This is certainly a convenience for the guy sitting in the back.”

Looking ahead, his company is watching development of the Ka-band system, but for now is concentrating on “the systems that are tried and true. We install it, it works and does what is supposed to do,” Loso says.

Rockwell Collins, and its antenna provider ViaSat, is offering its eXchange Ku-band antenna connectivity system tailored for larger business jets, with installed or pending installations on Gulfstream models, Cessna Citation X, Bombardier Challenger 604, and the Boeing Business Jet. Applicable platforms also include other Bombardier models, plus the Dassault Falcon7X, the company says. Rockwell Collins says that typical connection speeds range from 1-2 Mbps coming to the aircraft and 256 Kbps for data going from the aircraft.

Additionally, Rockwell Collins’ Venue CMS data network, including wired and Wi-Fi options, integrates with Swift Broadband and Aircell Gogo service enabling passengers to stay connected to laptops and other PDAs during flight. A Venue system was installed recently by Jet Aviation Basel on an Airbus A319 CJ. The system has been certified on the KingAir 350 and the Citation CJ4, and is being offered as an aftermarket upgrade for business jets.

“A lot of aircraft in the market have legacy cabin management systems, over 10 years old, that are analog. So with Venue we are seeing aircraft coming in for upgrades,” says Lupita Ho, principal marketing manager, cabin systems, for Rockwell Collins in Tustin, Calif.

ViaSat’s Yonder mobile broadband service has been offered for the past five years, with its global Ku-band network covering some 90 percent of global air routes. ViaSat provides the service through a reseller organization and also provide the shipsets that go on the aircraft. “We are able to optimize the hardware and the service because we control both ends of the product,” says Steven Sivitz, business development lead, business aviation group, headquartered in Carlsbad, Calif.

“This gives us a lot of flexibility in being able to incorporate additional capacity as the market requires it,” says Charlie Gunderson, director of general aviation products and services for the company. (ViaSat in January had signed four new contracts that will increase the total Ku-band capacity of its network by more than 60 percent for both its general aviation and government businesses.)

ViaSat plans to announce new services in May, and feels by adding capacity it can compete with future enterprises, including Inmarsat’s Global Express. “Between now and the end of 2015, an additional 40 Ku-band satellites will be launched and put into service, which we can use potentially to add to the capacity of our network,” Gunderson says.

Honeywell has delivered more than 30 of its cabin management system Ovation Select. It is currently on the Falcon 900,Global Express, G550 and BBJ and was chosen by Embraer for the Legacy 600/650 executive jets. (It has also been chosen for the Embraer 450 and 500, not yet in production.

Honeywell has signed an agreement with Inmarsat to develop, produce and distribute onboard hardware for the new Global Xpress network both for the business/general aviation and air transport markets. In March, Honeywell completed the preliminary design review (PDR) for the hardware that will be used in Inmarsat’s GX Aviation program, including the terminals and antenna sub-systems on the aircraft. The critical design review is scheduled for this year, with the global service to launch in 2015.

Inmarsat advertises data speeds up to 15-20 Mbps comparable to what we see in our homes and offices. Honeywell is the exclusive wireless airtime reseller for Global Express for business aviation and has partnered with ARINC Direct to distribute the connectivity services to the market.

On the lower end of the business jet market, Flight Display Systems, of Alpharetta, Ga., which has been supplying displays to Beechcraft, is launching a new product called a “wireless Jukebox server,” for business aircraft cabins that provides a low-power Wi-Fi connection whose frequency is below the FCC threshold and consequently doesn’t require an STC, according to Jay Healey, regional sales manager. Using an existing aircraft router, or installing a low-cost retail carry-on router, up to eight people can access the system, select individual movies to watch, and then send audio/video to their personal electronic devices. It works with all wireless devices, including Apple or Android tablets or smart phones, he says.

“Some are putting on these Internet systems aboard with equipment/ installation cost of $65-70,000. But what a lot of people are looking for is not so much Internet access, but a way to have a Wi-Fi system aboard the aircraft so that with an Apple or an Android they can watch movies or whatever they want.” The Jukebox server sells for about $6,000 plus installation. A second version, which also has a moving map display, will also be available, selling for about $12,000.

The evolution of the business jet cabin connectivity market means the addition of capabilities on more airframes and potentially lower price points for operators
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