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Thursday, November 1, 2012

Airborne & On the Grid: In-Flight Connectivity

Beyond the needs of the passenger, a wireless connection brings a series of tools to the cockpit capable of increasing situational awareness, lowering workload, enhancing safety, and even assisting with maintenance

By Frank Lombardi

Conceptual image from Honeywell illustrates in-flight connectivity for aircraft. Helicopter image added by Graphic Designer Gretchen Saval.

Without question, the Internet is woven into the daily lives of just about all of us. Technology has broken the bonds of the wires that once tethered us to our desktops, and wireless networks have become more the rule than the exception. The ability to send and receive floods of information at a moments notice is quite literally at our fingertips, and the personal electronic device (PED) has evolved into an extra appendage that we seem to need almost as much as the opposable thumbs we text with.

It is interesting that despite the speed of advancing wireless technology, the ability to connect to the web while in flight is still somewhat of a luxury. However, this technology is finally becoming more pervasive on the market, and with it comes a host of steadily growing applications.

In commercial aviation, the primary goal of wireless networking has been to provide in-flight connectivity to passengers for both entertainment and productivity. But looking beyond the Internet, for those of us in the cockpit, a wireless connection option brings a bag of tools capable of increasing situational awareness, lowering workload, enhancing safety—and even assisting in maintenance.

To explore the topic, we must first understand the basics. Any wireless connection in flight will initially need to connect with a router-style “access point” installed in the aircraft. The data being requested must then be relayed from the aircraft to a ground station. The ground station then taps into the Web or whatever data service is necessary, and the return data is passed back in the opposite direction.

Gogo (originally Aircell), an Internet provider to select air carriers, employs an air-to-ground (ATG) system to bring third-generation evolution-data optimized (3G EV-DO) wireless broadband into select airline cabins. To accomplish this, Gogo’s networked cell towers across the U.S. have been outfitted with antennas that point their signals up at the sky instead of down across the ground. This provides a wireless service experience that most of us are used to when we surf the Web with our smartphones. However, it does have its limitations. The most obvious should be the fact that the signal is only good while over the continental U.S., since the last cell tower will go out of range shortly after the aircraft flies out over the ocean. Another issue is that as more people try to stream data-intensive material, such as movies on their PEDs, the speeds they can achieve may leave something to be desired. Let’s face it, as our electronic lives evolve, we crave more bandwidth. 

SkyTrac ISAT 200A.
The quick answer to these two issues is the use of satellites for data transmission. At a glance, satellites seem to solve all our in-flight connectivity problems. But the reality is a bit more complex. Jeff Warner, President and CEO of North Flight Data Systems, helped explain what can be a confusing hierarchy of businesses involved in the process of getting connected. First there is the aircraft. Then there are companies that produce data collection devices, i.e. the hardware necessary to gather certain data—be it cockpit data, passenger data, etc. Finally there is the service provider, which passes the collected data through its software and modem access point and transmits it via satellite for a fee. Warner’s company produces lightweight voice, video and flight data recorders for use in light helicopters such as the Eurocopter AS350, EC135 and EC145, among others.

Two predominant types of satellite connectivity solutions in use today are the high-altitude, high-powered geostationary variety requiring high-powered transmitters, and the low-altitude, lower powered type in low Earth orbit.

Inmarsat, provider of mobile satellite services, operates a network of 11 geostationary satellites around the world to achieve near-global coverage (coverage at the poles is tricky because of poor line-of-sight). By definition, each of these satellites match the rotation of the Earth and maintain their location over a point on the equator, while in orbit approximately 22,236 miles above the surface. They are capable of providing the high-bandwidth data transfer speeds comparable to what we have come to expect in our home office networks, via their Swiftbroadband service. Generally speaking, the higher power of these satellites requires larger, heavier and draggier equipment to be installed on aircraft wanting this capability.

The other satellite solution—which North Flight’s recorders make use of—is provided by Iridium Communications, which maintains a low Earth orbit constellation of 66 satellites (there’s even a bunch of spares in orbit), about 485 miles up. Because the satellites are closer to the earth, more are required to maintain global coverage. Their coverage is arguably more efficient with the ability to crosslink (talk directly to each other), and their power requirements are less, allowing for smaller, lighter, more streamlined equipment. The caveat is that they only provide lower bandwidth signals more suitable for voice and low-speed short burst data transfer. A second generation satellite network, coined Iridium NEXT, will launch in 2015, and promises numerous performance increases. With some insight into each type of system, it’s apparent that no one system can address every possible requirement. To help in making the proper choice, companies such as Honeywell can provide packaged solutions. Kurt Weidemeyer, Honeywell’s director in marketing and product management for satellite communications, explained: “With the coming upgrades in the near future, operators will have multiple choices to serve the cockpit and cabin when choosing a system.” He was referring to Inmarsat’s evolving Global Xpress system with “Ka-band” technology, which has more capacity and is well-suited for mobile use. It is resulting in smaller, more reliable and more efficient components that can still provide a broadband signal, and has allowed Inmarsat to become more competitively priced with the offerings of Iridium. Weidemeyer went on to say, “Honeywell supports both Iridium and Inmarsat, and provides everything needed on the aircraft to take their satellite signal and make it usable to the operator.”

Whether the “operator” refers to the commercial airlines, business class, or private jet travel, a clear need for worldwide connectivity is evident. As put by Jenelle Davis, marketing manager for ARINC Direct (a distribution partner for Inmarsat), “When the business person in today’s world gets onboard an aircraft, their business should not have to stop just because they take off.” Having the ability to email, text, fax, stream large amounts of data and make voice calls globally is crucial to the productivity of many businesses, and a system taking advantage of a high speed, secure data connection would provide what Davis describes as “seamless global communication while in-flight.” 

North Flight Data Systems multifunction data acquisition unit (MFDAU).
When we think of productivity in the office, it should be easy to see that such a system is equally beneficial to the crew in the “front office” of an aircraft. Via satellite connection, pilots can access enhanced weather reports, plan and file the next leg of their flights, or access their base operation’s server, even during long, overwater trip segments. It is also imperative that certain safety-critical data can be delivered through a highly reliable and redundant certified connection, which both Inmarsat and Iridium systems can now provide. Additionally, with the Federal Aviation Administration’s allowance of iPads and similar tablet devices to be used as Electronic Flight Bags by pilots, a cascade of apps have appeared on the market. Davis highlighted the ARINC Direct flight planning app, for example, as one such tool to aid and enhance flight planning from the cockpit when combined with one of ARINC’s service plans.

Perhaps least thought about, but possibly the ultimate display of usefulness of in-flight connectivity is exemplified by aircraft routinely taken into remote locations, such as offshore, search and rescue, EMS, forestry, or disaster relief helicopter operations. To these types of operations, an in-flight connection is a literal lifeline. With a wireless connection via satellite, operators can have a full-time live link to their entire base operation. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) can allow voice calls from areas where no cell coverage exists. Health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS) that watch over the many rotating and vibrating critical parts of a helicopter can be tied into a wireless connection and transmit the state of an aircraft’s systems to maintenance personnel hundreds of miles away, who can monitor or troubleshoot many issues without physically being there.

The cost effectiveness of helicopter operations is particularly sensitive to weight, balance and useful load. From that angle, it’s not hard to see why the addition of current components that support a high-speed connection can be too cost prohibitive. Beyond that, there are electronic issues of obtaining a good signal with a broadband antenna that is mounted under the spinning rotor. Such systems exist, but are generally only suitable for military application at this time. Yet, SkyTrac Systems is a company that recognizes the importance of wireless communication in the helicopter industry, and has developed products to meet that need.

SkyTrac Systems’ SkyWeb mobile map for the iPhone.

Realizing that most critical cockpit operations do not require a broadband connection, SkyTrac offers connectivity packages that make use of the lower-cost and lighter equipment weight of the Iridium satellite network to bring two-way voice, e-mail and flight following into the helicopter cockpit. Malachi Nordine, director of product development at SkyTrac Systems emphatically told Rotor & Wing: “Satellite connectivity should not be reserved for the bizjet/air transport market just because they operate in a different economy class. Non-scheduled ‘working’ rotorcraft also need connectivity. Maintaining communication to one’s operations is critical. Safety is the factor when communicating with remotely deployed assets.” While discussing the cost of operating such instrumental electronics, Nordine also had an interesting view: “There is a misconception that satellite service is expensive. Satellite connectivity in aircraft is actually more economical than regular cellular roaming. When I travel, my roaming charges are significantly more when compared to what the satellite charges would have been. My office people joke that it’s cheaper for me to use satellite when I travel.” 

For the average air traveler, the cost of upgrading an airliner to have a broadband connection will ultimately fall upon them, as they pay a fee for their connections. While there are probably enough parents that would gladly pay any fee to be able to provide their toddler with a form of in-flight entertainment during a trip to make the technology worthwhile, its uses go so far beyond such a notion. Still, Warner cautioned, “Satellite communication is wonderful technology, and that’s where the industry should go, but it should be taken in small bites. It sounds like a panacea, but we can unintentionally impede our operation trying to make sense of it all.” In Warner’s view, “Sending data is not cheap, so why not just send only what’s important? It’s a lot more than a communications link. The conduit is there, but there’s lots of work that needs to be done in qualifying those sent messages and making sure they’re useful. I mean, you don’t want junk mail coming over your satellite connection!”

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