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Airborne Connectivity

Fitting satellite communications to your aircraft turns it into a flying office. Business trips are no longer compromised time between take-off and landing- and today you can catch up with your email- do basic internet surfing and make important phone calls. Satellite communications (satcoms) can allow you to use your mobile telephone and internet just as you would on the ground.

AvBuyer   |   1st September 2011
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Taking care of business while flying on your aircraft

By Steve Nichols

Fitting satellite communications to your aircraft turns it into a flying office. Business trips are no longer compromised time between take-off and landing- and today you can catch up with your email- do basic internet surfing and make important phone calls. Satellite communications (satcoms) can allow you to use your mobile telephone and internet just as you would on the ground.

The Inmarsat system- which employs satellites in geostationary orbits high above the earth- is popular for aeronautical applications. It enables connectivity between approximately 70-degrees North and 70-degrees South latitudes- and is approved for transmitting safety service messages used in Air Traffic Control (ATC). Iridium- which uses a constellation of 66 active satellites in low earth orbits- is also available for voice and data transmission.

More than 20-000 aircraft worldwide use the Iridium system- which provides coverage globally - including over the earth’s poles. Recently approved by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration for oceanic ATC communications- approvals for more extensive safety messaging using Iridium is anticipated. Only one service provider - FLYHT in conjunction with its Chinese partner Sky Blue - currently is authorized to use Iridium in China.

In addition to being highly valuable for passengers- connectivity via satellite is also important for pilots on the flight deck. Satcom enables receipt of aeronautical “safety services” - Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) - over satellite and operational messages along with weather updates- positional reporting and Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) updates- all of which are essential services and more reliable over satellite than via HF/VHF.

So why would you want internet and telephone connectivity in your business aircraft? It is surely better to ask yourself why you would not want it. If you could turn your aircraft into a flying office- you would be able to stay ahead of the competition- keep abreast of business developments and be well prepared for your meetings upon arrival.

The range of communications options possible with these systems are on a par with those available at airport hotspots and hotels. Don't expect very fast broadband internet speeds – but do expect a connection quick enough to view web pages- and do some video streaming/video conferencing.

Further- your phone and laptop will be using a satellite connection that is trusted and will be maintained without interruption when crossing different coverage zones. It should also work in heavy weather- at any altitude- and during approach- take-off or landing. Remember though- that global coverage beyond about 70 degrees North and South latitude is possible only with the Iridium satellite system.


Considerations of capabilities

As mentioned- satcoms can allow you to use your mobile telephone as you would on the ground. You can choose between a wired or wireless system in the aircraft. The wired option was once the most popular among operators- but today onboard Wi-Fi is gaining in popularity.

Original Equipment Manufacturer Honeywell recommends that you have a single Wi-Fi installation for every 50 feet of open cabin - so for an average-sized business jet one Wi-Fi gateway should suffice. A typical wired installation (e.g. EMS Aviation's HSD-400 high-speed data terminal and CMX-100 cabin gateway) would give you two analog phone connections and two Ethernet connections for internet.

There are several options available from various manufacturers. For example- other portions of the frequency spectrum (such as the Ku and Ka bands) are used in satellite communications for passenger connectivity. While equipment using these bandwidths are very fast- they have geographical limitations and currently are expensive.

You can use your Blackberry- iPhone or other devices fairly seamlessly- paying roughly $1.50/minute for voice calls. (You actually pay for the amount of bandwidth you use- not for the length of the call- so costs are approximate.) Expect the connection to be as good- if not better than you would get while driving your car.

While it would be very hard to intercept and decode satellite telephone calls- if you are worried about inappropriate persons listening to your messages the calls can be encrypted (turned into complex code) just as easily as any other form of data- using any one of a variety of secure phone equipment.

Basic emails are possible via wired or wireless connection. You normally would pay on a per-megabyte basis – typical costs being around $0.08/e-mail. For surfing the internet you would still pay on a per-megabyte basis (typically around $8.95/Mb on an Inmarsat pay-per-use data scheme).

Using today’s cabin connectivity equipment- it is also possible to set up a VPN connection to a corporate network- allowing you access to all your data on the ground just as though you were in the office. Speed and bandwidth may be limited- depending on the equipment installed on the airplane - and costs differ between systems.


Flight Deck Connectivity

As we mentioned- connectivity is also important on the flight deck. When making a trans-oceanic flight- it is essential to have reliable position reporting. VHF range is inadequate. HF voice- while in common use- is also less than reliable.

As an example of satcom’s increasing popularity- transport communications specialist SITA recently passed the “two-million-messages-per-day” landmark- many of which occur via satellite. Critical routing information is sent by Air Traffic Control (ATC) through Controller Pilot Datalink Communications (CPDLC) over Future Air Navigation Systems (FANS) using ACARS.

Weather updates or new flight plans can be requested by the crew. ACARS also supports real-time engine monitoring by delivering data to aircraft and engine manufacturers – the list of uses is growing rapidly. A system manufactured by a Canadian avionics provider- FLYHT- also supports real-time condition monitoring and position reporting using the Iridium satellite constellation.

Finally- in the case of an in-flight emergency the captain of a satcom-equipped aircraft would be able to make direct contact with ATC and other parties to alert search and rescue services. These systems are set up so the cockpit has priority over- and can pre-empt- communications for any other purpose (business or otherwise).

The safety capabilities of Inmarsat and Iridium systems are designed to be fully compliant with International Civil Aviation Organization plans for an integrated global traffic management system.

Advances in satcom systems promise greater connectivity and higher throughput efficiency than is currently available with today’s offerings. When specifying equipment for enhancing cabin and cockpit connectivity- operators are wise to explore all options within this rapidly emerging field of technology.

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