Connexion is coming to super-midsize airplanes

 - April 3, 2007, 6:39 AM

Engineers from Rockwell Collins are immersed in the task of redesigning a satellite direct TV antenna to bring Boeing’s broadband Connexion service to super-midsize and larger business jets. The Cedar Rapids, Iowa avionics manufacturer anticipates initial flight tests of a prototype of the new antenna in the coming months and commercial introduction of Connexion hardware late next year.

Business aircraft operators have been lining up to add high-speed-data capability to their airplanes, only to learn that current antennas that work with Connexion are too big to fit anything smaller than a 737-size jetliner (the current antenna works on the BBJ). And news that Boeing is designing an even larger Connexion antenna, with a tapered radome that is 96 inches long and 11 inches high, won’t solve the problem. But Boeing thinks Rockwell Collins can.

The two companies formed a partnership last fall called eXchange that makes Rockwell Collins the exclusive marketer of Connexion services for super-midsize and larger business jets. It also leaves Collins to build the on-aircraft end of the link, including developing new antenna technology.

While not providing many details about what direction the antenna design will take, Collins said current phased-array technology probably does not hold the answer. The first Connexion antennas were flat phased arrays that had low profiles, but unfortunately they would lose sight of the service’s Ku-band satellites at higher latitudes because of the earth’s curvature.

That led Boeing to develop a new antenna, this one a dish that lies on its side. It is a design that allows data connections at higher latitudes while also offering a reasonably low profile–yet it is still too big for large business jets such as Bombardier’s Global Express, which are prime candidates for Connexion. Bombardier will be the first to bring eXchange hardware to its aircraft, the Canadian business jet maker announced at last fall’s NBAA Convention.

Bruce Thigpen, director of business and regional systems marketing for Rockwell Collins, said the eXchange antenna will be a modified version of the company’s Tailwind 550, a fuselage-mounted dish that buyers use to receive live satellite TV aloft. He said the scope of the antenna modifications involves increasing its accuracy to a level that allows high-speed data to be transmitted, even when an airplane is maneuvering.

Rockwell Collins has strengthened its foothold in cabin in-flight entertainment markets mainly through its acquisition of Airshow, a maker of moving-map programs for passengers and airborne TV systems. The FAA recently awarded Collins an STC and parts manufacturing authority for the Airshow 4000 moving-map and flight-information system, a certification that was completed in a Gulfstream IV.
Airshow 4000 is capable of supporting various multimedia applications, video, audio, text and graphics, which are displayed in the cabin and cockpit. The system processes flight information from the aircraft’s long-range sensors and displays appropriate maps and flight information, as well as current news, stock quotes, sports scores and weather.

Collins also announced the introduction of BBC News programming for Airshow 4000. The contract with the BBC lets customers choose from 16 categories of international news and create custom profiles. Categories include World, Africa, the Americas, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Middle East, South Asia, UK, UK politics, business, science/nature, technology, health, education, sports and international sports. The BBC joins other Airshow 4000 programming from Bloomberg, CNN, SportsTicker, The Wall Street Journal, WSI Inflight and Intellicast weather.