Dassault first OEM to install airborne Internet system

 - April 18, 2008, 5:33 AM

Technicians at Dassault Falcon Jet’s completion center in Little Rock, Ark., have on this month’s docket the installation in a Falcon 900EX of a new high-speed-data satcom system designed by EMS Technologies. Known as the HSD-128, the data unit is claimed to be the first such system installed by an aircraft OEM for a customer airplane–in this case the wealthy CEO of an Internet company.

In April Dassault installed its first HSD-128 data satcom unit aboard the company’s own Falcon 900EX demonstrator, now busy conducting sales flights from the company’s headquarters at Teterboro (N.J.) Airport. The two-channel system in the demonstrator is married to an EMS Technologies AMT-50 antenna, Cisco router and ISDN and Ethernet ports, providing simultaneous access for Web surfing and voice calls, both of which are said to be noticeably improved over current-generation satcom systems.

Mark Valle, Dassault vice president of programs, told AIN that during the first demonstration flight on April 30 from Little Rock, the EMS Technologies data system performed flawlessly. In its present configuration, said Valle, passengers are able to surf the Web at 64 kbps–slightly faster than a 56-kbps PC modem connection–and place telephone calls using 64-kbps uncompressed voice, providing call quality that is superior to traditional satcom, which is transmitted at just 4.8 kbps.

The equipment installed in the Dassault demonstrator consists of the HSD-128 data unit in a single 8-MCU box, router, data ports and the high-gain antenna, a setup that allows as many as four passengers to connect to the Internet simultaneously. The two-channel system is capable of bonding signals to provide a 128-kbps pipeline.

“Our customers are in the habit of accomplishing as much business as possible during their flights,” said John Rosanvallon, Dassault Falcon Jet president, adding that the HSD-128 is designed to provide secure connections to corporate virtual private networks on the ground, a requirement for most customers these days.

‘Plug and Go’
Data ports installed in the cabin make connecting to the Internet as easy as powering up a laptop computer and plugging it into the system, said Valle. There is no special hardware to install, nor does the passenger need to possess anything but a layman’s knowledge of personal computers. Before installation, however, the customer will in all likelihood need some help with the system’s configuration, preferably from a corporate IT department.

Valle said Dassault will sit down with an operator’s IT team to discuss the specifics of firewalls and network configurations to be certain the HSD-128 as installed can interface with computer systems on the ground. He expressed some surprise at just how aware customers are about what’s required on their part, which has helped ease the process.

The idea with the HSD-128, said Valle, is to make surfing the Internet in flight as seamless an experience as possible. The hard work of putting each of the pieces of the system together and making sure all the disparate parts communicate the way they’re supposed to is the job of the computer technicians. Valle commented that installations for fractional jets are expected to be somewhat more challenging because any passenger who may board that aircraft must be able to “plug in and go.”

In developing the hardware, Doppler shift and IRS drift were very real concerns of the engineers both at EMS Technologies, the hardware supplier, and Inmarsat, which developed the space segment of the network. Both claim to have solved these problems, and Dassault reported that its test flights to date have seemed to confirm the system operates as advertised.

During the initial shakedown flight, a four-hour trip aloft, the pilots put the airplane through various maneuvers, including high-bank 360-deg turns, in an attempt to knock the system offline. At no time, said Valle, was the connection lost, nor was there noticeable degradation of the satcom data rate over time. Some engineers predicted there might be a drop in speed during long flights as the IRS accuracy drifted. Valle said he could not vouch for how well the system would perform on a max-endurance flight, but from first-hand experience, he said four hours aloft does not seem to affect its capability.

Inmarsat in April announced the commercial availability of its new Swift64 mobile data service, and EMS Technologies so far is one of only two companies approved to sell compatible equipment. Honeywell/ Thales, with the HS-600 data unit, is the other. Rockwell Collins, meanwhile, has tested its HST-900 data satcom and plans to begin offering the product to customers in time for this September’s NBAA Convention.

EMS Technologies offers two high-speed data terminals, the HSD-128, and a single-channel unit, the HSD-64. List price of the HSD-128, expected to be the more popular option for business jet operators, is $128,250. The single-channel HSD-64, priced at $68,750, has been flying since last November on U.S. military VIP aircraft for secure videoconferencing connections in flight.

Teledyne Controls is the exclusive distributor of HSD products, and Dassault said it is still working with Teledyne on a price for the HSD-128 for Falcon options lists. Valle reported Web surfing costs $12 to $13 per minute depending on where the airplane is, and voice calls are about $3.50 a minute, a price that is far lower than with traditional Aero-H satcom. The voice quality of the HDS-128, Dassault claims, is far superior to Aero-H satcom.

Valle said Dassault has “several prospects” for the high-speed data satcom among its customers, adding that the airframe maker expects a strong response in the months ahead. If a customer aircraft is already equipped with Aero-H satcom, the installation is as simple as removing the existing satcom receiver and replacing it with the HSD-128, requiring downtime of only a few days, he said.