Thales satcom coming to bizjets

 - August 1, 2007, 6:58 AM

The new TopFlight satellite data unit (SDU) from Thales is set to be installed on a new-build business aircraft later this year by an as yet unidentified manufacturer. According to the France-based electronics group, the equipment should be certified to support wireless communications for passengers by the second quarter of next year.

Peter Hitchcock, director of avionics systems with Thales Aerospace, said the system’s preliminary design review has been completed and wiring installation is due to start this month. The certification schedule has been synchronized with the projected availability of Inmarsat class 6 service.

The TopFlight box is designed to use the forthcoming Inmarsat SwiftBroadband service with its 432 kbps data rate. For the business aviation market, Thales is offering service through voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) to bypass the country-by-country regulatory approval hurdles associated with Wi-Fi connections.

Nonetheless, the equipment will support all office-in-the-sky Internet-based services.
The system’s single-box architecture is designed to reduce the number of onboard line-replaceable items. Designed to meet the Arinc 781 standard, the TopFlight SDU will also satisfy other requirements, including ATC communications and cockpit services such as weather-map downloads. It consists of a 6-MCU box, weighs less than 25 pounds and includes a 30-watt high-power amplifier, replacing three conventional boxes that would require between two and four times the space.

Antennas, too, have shrunk. The high-gain antennas needed for worldwide communications using previous generations of Inmarsat satellite are typically housed in fairings 20 inches wide, 67 inches long and five inches high. New-generation antennas such as the EMS Satcom AMT-300 are one-third the weight and require a two-inch fairing, so they do not produce nearly as much drag.

Its lean architecture makes the equipment suitable for aircraft that have not previously been able to accommodate satcom systems. In addition to business jets, Thales is targeting applications in smaller single-aisle airliners.

Christophe Picco, Thales Aerospace’s communication, navigation, surveillance strategy manager, told AIN that the imminent launch of the Inmarsat SwiftBroadband service “breaks one of the last barriers to communications on aircraft” by enabling passengers and crew to communicate using the Internet or customers’ own devices.

The new Inmarsat service is also much more versatile than the current service. In addition to providing classic cockpit and cabin communications, it works with electronic flight bags (EFBs), providing the capability to use the EFB in AOG situations to retrieve graphical weather and provide access to Web-based operations and maintenance material.

In the cabin, with the addition of a Wi-Fi access point, EFBs can support wireless services, including VoIP. They also support the pico cells about to be introduced to enable passengers to use their own GSM cellphones.

In fact, the Thales SDU has been specified as part of the hardware Kid Systeme is designing for the SITA/Airbus OnAir GSM system. “With this unit operators can choose whether to allow voice calls,” said Picco, referring to long-running debates about whether the in-flight use of cellphones will be acceptable to most airline passengers.

OnAir calls will cost $2.50 per minute outgoing and $2.30 per minute incoming. Text messages using the SMS service will cost $0.50 to send and nothing to receive. Prices for the alternative AeroMobile cellphone service are significantly higher, Picco claimed, at $3.50 per minute for outgoing calls and $1 per SMS, because that system does not use SwiftBroadband.

The current SDU provides two channels to support GSM and Internet access. By the first quarter of next year it will add two more channels for cockpit use, and by the third quarter of 2009 Thales plans a 5-/6-channel version with an external 60-watt high-power amplifier that will provide two voice and one classic data channels plus two channels of SwiftBroadband, all operating simultaneously.

“That’s the maximum configuration you could imagine for a large aircraft,” explained Picco. Inmarsat has limited each aircraft to two SwiftBroadband channels for the time being. “By 2010 or 2011 we should be able to go to more channels, but it’s forbidden for now.”