Cabin Electronics: Creating an office in the sky

 - November 1, 2006, 3:39 AM

As anyone who has flown aboard a private jet can attest, whiling away the time en route with a good book, sampling the catering or just engaging in some quiet conversation with cabin mates can make for an entirely enjoyable experience aloft. But for those who simply cannot afford to be away from their e-mail inboxes or put down their satellite phones for the duration of a flight, an array of hardware and service offerings can help fill the void.

Among the must-have gear for the cabin are high-speed-datalink (HSD) satcom systems from a number of suppliers. The most popular of these systems are capable of accessing the Internet at speeds of roughly twice the equivalent of a telephone modem, although some of the fastest are capable of speeds similar to DSL and cable modems.

Currently the most popular HSD offering is called Swift64. Launched a few years ago by satellite communications specialist Inmarsat, the service can deliver in-flight Internet connection speeds as high as 64 kbps for single-channel systems or much faster when two or more channels are bonded. Prices for Swift64 data satcom receivers, antennas, routers and file servers vary depending on the type of installation, but typically the cost of entry starts at about $150,000 for an onboard data terminal and rises by a few hundred thousand dollars after adding extra equipment such as a satcom antenna, satcom transceiver, network file server, router, wireless hub, data ports and so on. Airtime charges also vary depending on the service provider, but in general Internet surfing will cost users about $10 a minute.

For those who need faster connection speeds, Inmarsat is busy deploying its next- generation satellite data service, called the Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN). The company is celebrating the successful launch of the first new-generation Inmarsat-4 satellite from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in March. The size of a London double-decker bus and weighing about six tons, the satellite will be capable of delivering broadband data services over all the major flight routes.

“The world has just gotten a little smaller,” said Andrew Sukawaty, Inmarsat CEO and chairman, after the I4 launch on March 11. “We have created communications history today. The I4 satellite is one of the largest and most powerful commercial satellites ever launched and will deliver unprecedented data speeds for a mobile satellite communications service.”

The I4 satellites are said to be 60 times more powerful and have 20 times more capacity than the previous Inmarsat-3 satellites. Each Inmarsat-4 satellite will transmit more than 240 tightly focused spot beams, each carrying a number of noninterfering channels. Together they will form the BGAN network.

The initial launch satellite is now undergoing a series of post-launch tests before it can be fully deployed in geostationary orbit above the Indian Ocean. The satellite footprint will cover Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, most of the Asia Pacific region, and Western Australia. Inmarsat plans to launch a second I4 satellite in the third quarter, which the company said will be positioned over the Americas. These two I4 satellites will cover about 85 percent of the world’s land mass. A third satellite planned for the Pacific will provide near-global coverage.

Equipment Makers Launch BGAN Development Projects

Preparing for the coming introduction of the new Inmarsat service, EMS Technologies of Ottawa has launched a four-channel HSD-400 satcom data terminal, which the company said supports four channels of Inmarsat Swift64 and will support the BGAN services when they come online. The HSD-400 builds on the current EMS Technologies HSD-128 dual-channel Swift64 terminal to provide additional data capability in the same form factor, according to the company. Billed as a “plug-and-play replacement” for the HSD-128 data terminal, the HSD-400 will support multiple BGAN channels. Teledyne Controls provides the EMS equipment and a complementing Smart Cabin Office Suite for the business aircraft market.
EMS Technologies is offering the HSD-400 product as part of its effusion Broadband HSD line. The effusion HSD-X provides additional speed to the HSD terminal. Designed for the future, the HSD will support CNS/ATM and the evolving BGAN services.

EMS Technologies has also introduced optional acceleration equipment designed to boost the performance of the Swift64 link. The addition of an optional data accelerator, called the cabin network Xcelerator (CNX), can boost throughput by up to 400 percent, according to the manufacturer. By using data-compression techniques and so-called bit-level caching in conjunction with a ground-based network accelerator, CNX can speed corporate data traffic by compressing and optimizing it for faster loading on board the aircraft.

Meanwhile, teaming partners Honeywell and Thales Avionics are now offering the new HS-700/702 HSD communications system, which supports voice, fax and up to 128-kbps data connections. Adding the HS-700/702 to a Honeywell/ Thales MCS-4000 or MCS-7000 satcom system gives buyers the option of operating two independent data channels at 64 kbps or linking both channels for data rates of up to 128 kbps.

Honeywell is said to be preparing now for the launch of its first BGAN satcom system, with an official announcement anticipated sometime next year.

Rockwell Collins has introduced the SAT-6100, a data satcom system that will be installed as a baseline component of the integrated cabin electronics package on the Bombardier Global 5000. SAT-6100 provides multiple voice and data communication channels for the flight deck and cabin in a small and lightweight package, said the company.

Consisting of the Collins SRT-2100 receiver and two HST-2100 high-speed transceivers providing three Aero-I/H/H+ channels and two channels of Swift64 high-speed-data service, the SAT-6100 system is designed to be installed completely outside the pressure vessel, thereby preserving cabin space.

A new 50-watt high-power amplifier improves system performance and allows simultaneous use of two voice channels, two high-speed data channels and one low-speed data channel for ICAO safety services. Future functionality will include interoperability with Inmarsat’s BGAN satellites, according to Rockwell Collins.

Danish satcom maker Thrane & Thrane late last year introduced the HSU (high-speed unit), which the company said supports greater bandwidth capability than previously possible over Swift64. The HSU is an add-on to Thrane & Thrane’s Aero-HSD+ (high speed data) product, which offers “true office in the sky capability” and allows business jet operators to use high-speed voice, e-mail and Internet services from the aircraft, according to the company. The HSU adds a 64-kbps data rate to the Aero-HSD+, for overall bandwidth of 128 kilobytes per second. First U.S. delivery of the product went to a Dassault Falcon 900EX operator in November.

According to the company, operators can use one HSU channel for video conferencing while still having access to the Internet on the other channel, or they can bundle the channels for higher throughput. The Aero-HSD+ supports multichannel voice, fax, PC modem data, ISDN, MPDS and cockpit communications. The system is available in a four- or five-channel version. Aero-HSD+ has been installed in a number of business and military aircraft, including Gulfstreams and Dassault Falcons.

Thrane & Thrane hasn’t disclosed its plans for a BGAN-capable system, but the company made news last month with the introduction of its first BGAN land terminal, the Explorer 500. Industry observers assume a version of this system will be upgraded for aeronautical use, although the company has not announced a timetable for such a product.

Inmarsat Competitors Eye Expanding Market

Inmarsat isn’t the only player in the high-speed-data services arena. Connexion by Boeing and Arinc Direct’s SkyLink each offer BGAN-like satellite services, which are beginning to attract buyers from the bizav market.

Rockwell Collins and Boeing have announced an agreement to provide broadband data connectivity for the corporate aviation market with the rollout of Collins eXchange, a rival to Inmarsat’s data services that will combine the real-time satellite communications capabilities of the Connexion by Boeing broadband network with Collins’s Airshow 21 cabin information and entertainment system architecture and hardware.

The Connexion by Boeing service is available today on flights operated by Lufthansa, SAS (Scandinavian Airlines System), ANA, Japan Airlines and Singapore Airlines. China Airlines, Korean Air, Asiana and El Al have also announced plans to equip their long-haul aircraft with the service. Boeing’s deal with Collins will expand the Connexion offering to the corporate jet arena, making it possible for business aircraft passengers to receive and exchange information through geosynchronous satellites operating in the Ku-band at upload speeds reaching five megabytes per second.

Gulfstream, meanwhile, recently received an STC for the first installation of its Broad Band Multi-Link (BBML) high-speed Internet connection system, on the G500 and G550.

BBML uses SkyLink by Arinc Direct to provide Internet access at speeds comparable to those of ground-based cable or DSL lines. Data speeds as high as 3.5 mbps are said to be possible with BBML, and SkyLink is guaranteeing minimum connection speeds of 512 kbps to the aircraft and 128 kbps from the aircraft. Normal speeds are at least 700 kbps to more than one megabyte, said the airframe maker.

Arinc developed the SkyLink system with investment and technology support from its project partner, SES Americom, a provider of global satellite communications. The SkyLink system is based on Ku-band satellite communications technology developed by ViaSat, which produces the aircraft transceiver and antenna as well as the ground earth station equipment.

In-flight Use of Cellphones Nearing Reality

Aircraft passengers should soon be able to use their personal cellphones in flight safely through a new service developed jointly by Inmarsat, Arinc and mobile telephone service provider Telenor. According to the partners, the system will cost no more than $100,000 to install on each aircraft and users will pay around $3.50 per minute for calls and about $1 per text message sent in flight.

Initially, the service will be limited to users of GSM technology, which accounts for almost three-quarters of all cellphones worldwide but is not widely used in the U.S. The partners later intend to extend the service to other cellphone technologies, such as CDMA, which is in widespread use in North America.

The service is currently being developed under the working title Arinc/Telenor Mobile Connectivity but is due to be unveiled with a distinct brand name soon. Engineers from Telenor and Arinc and representatives of the airlines, meanwhile, have started working to clear regulatory hurdles. In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission prohibits cellphone use in flight, but the technology envisioned for airborne mobile calling should be able to gain approval because it won’t interfere with avionics on board the aircraft or other cellphone users on the ground, makers claim.

How would the technology work? On board the airplane there would be a receiver that would talk to users’ mobile telephones, in essence instructing the cellphone to go to its lowest possible power setting. This will prevent airborne calls from interfering with users on the ground or with cockpit avionics.

The system would use so-called pico cells to create a mini mobile cell in the aircraft cabin. These cells replicate the ground-based GSM network and translate the GSM voice call into a format that can be sent to ground stations via the relatively narrow band of the aircraft’s satcom system. From the ground stations, the calls can be relayed via whichever cellphone roaming service the customer subscribes to. The pico cells prevent cellphones from transmitting at power levels that could interfere with avionics systems. They need transmit at only one milliwatt, one-tenth of the current limit for certification. Cellphones on the ground can transmit at power ratings as high as one watt.

Customers pay for their calls through their regular cellphone service provider, eliminating the need to register credit cards or account details. In addition to its own cellphone network, Norway-based Telenor already has roaming agreements with some 220 other service providers around the world. Airlines and other commercial aircraft operators will receive a commission on calls made, allowing them to recoup installation costs and generate some additional income. Any incoming voice calls or text messages will be billed to the sender and recipient on whatever basis their respective service providers already use.

For airline passengers, pricing will be targeted to match international roaming rates. Aboard business jets, passengers would pay no more to place a call with their cellphone than what they are charged for satcom calling.

Meanwhile, the rival OnAir in-flight cellphone system had its first flight tests in September last year on board an aircraft provided by Airbus. The partners behind this program have said certification and regulatory hurdles will take longer to resolve and their target date for service introduction remains the second quarter of next year.

According to a spokesperson, OnAir’s call charges will be in line with international roaming rates for cellphone services on the ground, but, unlike Inmarsat and its associates, the partners have yet to provide specific estimates or announce details of commercial arrangements with cellphone service providers. They have also yet to provide details of installation costs for aircraft operators, but spokespeople for OnAir have indicated that the airlines are the company’s top priority for now, meaning it could be some time before a business aviation version of OnAir is available.

Iridium and AirCell Making Waves Again

Some say the introduction of in-flight personal cellphone services will render the traditional satcom system obsolete. There was a time not too many years ago when people thought AirCell and Iridium each would accomplish that goal with their low-cost terrestrial and satcom voice services. Alas, Iridium was forced into bankruptcy before it had a chance to build much of a subscriber base and AirCell’s plans were frustrated by new digital technology, as well as cellular companies that didn’t want the airborne communications provider moving in on their turf.

But each company has been showing signs of renewed life lately. Since its emergence from bankruptcy under new owners and resumption of worldwide satcom services in April 2001, Iridium has expanded its user base to more than 100,000 subscribers, including 2,500 in the aviation market. Aviation is now one of the largest markets for the company, boosted by new flight tracking services launched recently.

AirCell, meanwhile, no longer sells very many of its airborne cellular phone systems, mainly because new digital cellular technology is rendering much of its existing analog-based ground network obsolete, but it has big plans.

To remain a viable company, AirCell has formed a partnership with Iridium and today markets a line of Iridium satphones for business airplanes. Hardware and per-minute charges are about the same as those for its original airborne cellular service, and AirCell has been offering deals to customers seeking to move from the cellular systems to Iridium. Customers flying with the old AirCell phones can still use them to make calls, but the coverage area is being limited to fewer areas as analog cell stations are upgraded to new digital standards.

The encouraging news for AirCell customers is that the company has plans on the horizon to offer airborne cellular services that are based on digital cellular technology, which the company said will let passengers use their personal cellphones to place calls in flight and even access new high-speed-cellular data services when they are available.

Unlike the Inmarsat and OnAir services, AirCell’s service would use existing cellular towers instead of satellites to place calls. Assuming technological and regulatory hurdles are overcome, AirCell could roll out the new digital cell services as early as next year. In the meantime, look for AirCell to continue marketing its Iridium-based products.