Danish satcom system manufacturer Thrane & Thrane, which was acquired by UK avionics manufacturer Cobham in June, believes that there is massive untapped potential to create data “pipes” to connect thousands of aircraft around the world. These aircraft miss out on the advantages of broadband connectivity, including WiFi in the cabin and operational connections for the crew that can enhance efficiency and safety. Thrane & Thrane also believes that people assume satcom is more expensive than it actually is.
Kim Gram, vice president of Thrane & Thrane’s aeronautics business unit, told AIN, “We are seeing a 15- to 20-percent growth in the business aviation market. We don’t know exactly who they go to, but we see the channels growing year-on-year. We’re putting a lot of effort into making [the equipment] lighter and more versatile, combining WiFi, for example.”
Thrane & Thrane’s analysis of the market has highlighted that there is still “a significant number of aircraft that are not connected,” in stark contrast to other sectors. “Our main theme is to get more out there with IP [Internet protocol] pipes. It’s an unstable situation [in aviation]; ships and other vehicles are all connected now.” Gram said the technology is more accessible than ever and, although there is pressure on prices, “it’s a matter of educating people that it’s not very expensive. The reality is that satcom is less expensive than international roaming. You can make a phone call for $1 to $1.50 a minute and data is about $5 to $6 per megabyte.”
Gram continued, “You see a recovering bizav market, and alongside increased production rates there are lots of older aircraft that are not connected. It’s a huge territory for providing connectivity. A lot of people can’t work up there. You’re talking about 18,000 to 20,000 aircraft [ranging from airliners] down to small business aircraft, and only a fraction are connected.”
Thrane & Thrane has supplemental type certificates permitting its equipment to be fitted to most business aircraft, “from King Airs and Pilatuses up to BBJs or 737s or bigger,” said Gram. The product range includes the Aviator 200, 300, 350 and the latest model, the Aviator 700D. “We are not going to stop people on bigger aircraft having the smaller systems, or vice versa,” he continued, inferring that it was more about the capability required by the user rather than the size of their aircraft. “For example, we sold an Aviator 200 for a 737 and we have one on a 777, too. We have sold 700Ds for militarized King Air C-12s. The Aviator 200 comfortably serves four to five [people] on an aircraft using e-mail and phone.”
Gram explained that Thrane & Thrane is constantly reviewing its product range so that it can expand and improve. “We just introduced the 700D in January and we’re selling that in good numbers. We are implementing multi-voice service, so, for example, the pilot doesn’t have to hang up to let a conference call happen in the cabin.” This is done on a single voice channel unit by using the modem data channel for voice-over-Internet-protocol calling, which gives additional voice channels albeit at a slightly lower quality. “Early next year we are going to be introducing this, and this is a tangible advance,” said Gram.
Cobham’s purchase of Thrane & Thrane comes 11 years after the UK company’s acquisition of Cape Town-based Omniplex, which Thrane & Thrane has used as an antenna supplier for even longer. Gram said the two sister companies can work even more closely on development. Meanwhile, having Cobham as a parent means that the companies will be able to ramp up production to meet demand. “It’s important to say to the industry that Cobham and the Cape Town facility will enable us to push more product into the market quicker,” Gram told AIN.
The next major theme in satcom technology will be data segregation, which is essentially the creation of a secure data environment, Gram explained. “You’ll see a whole suite of products coming out that will support [this]. Manufacturers and operators are discussing this with us, so that all computer devices on an aircraft will become connected to the grid. Cobham has invested heavily in modems [and equipment] that can handle that data segregation.”