Global Express Web link gives Bombardier a leg up over GV

 - May 21, 2008, 9:48 AM

A maxim of modern commerce states that the key to success in business lies in always staying a step or two ahead of the competition. Among business aircraft makers that means constantly making improvements to products, sometimes by starting from scratch with an entirely new aircraft, or at other times by making changes to current designs.

Such improvements–a few hundred miles of added range or an upgraded suite of avionics, for instance–could mean the difference between making a sale and losing a potential customer to a competitor. When the sale of a $40 million business jet is on the line, aircraft makers seek to exploit every advantage, wherever possible.

In the battle for supremacy in the market for ultra-long-range business jets, Bombardier struck first last summer with its performance enhancement program (PEP), a series of design improvements to the Global Express that boosted the airplane’s range by shaving weight from the engines, smoothing the airflow around the vertical and horizontal stabilizers and increasing usable fuel capacity by adding a scavenging system to the tanks.

Gulfstream, Bombardier’s chief rival in the ultra-long-range bizjet market, answered a few months later by introducing the GV-SP, a derivative of the GV that offered more range, a bigger cabin and an upgraded LCD-based avionics system from Honeywell, among other improvements. At the time Bombardier claimed that its PEP for the Global Express opened a payload/range/speed gap between the Global Express and the GV, and that Gulfstream was merely playing catch-up to close the gap. But even as Bombardier was shrugging off the hype surrounding the GV-SP’s introduction at last fall’s NBAA Convention, the Canadian aircraft manufacturer was preparing a new salvo in an intensifying war.

At the Paris Air Show in June, Bombardier finally fired back. Along with partner DeCrane Aircraft Holdings, the company announced the development of a high-speed Internet link for the Global Express that would send data through Ku-band satellites at unprecedented speeds. The system, named e-Cabin.Connect, is scheduled to start flight trials aboard a Global Express before next month’s NBAA Convention, with full certification scheduled to occur by the end of the year.

According to Luc Fouquette, Bombardier general manager for the Global Express program, digital data will be sent to aircraft through a worldwide network of satellites at speeds of 512 kilobytes per second. As the service is expanded, Bombardier and DeCrane believe data-transfer rates from the satellites to the aircraft can be increased possibly to two megabytes per second, far faster than the connection speeds in many office buildings.

Single-direction Pipeline

High-speed data through the e-Cabin service initially will be sent in only one direction: from the satellites to the airplane. For sending IP requests or e-mail from the aircraft back to the ground, the airplane’s existing telephony, such as an Inmarsat-based satcom system or Magnastar telephone, must be used.

Steven Tepper, DeCrane vice president of market development, said it is possible that high-speed bidirectional data will be available in the next few years. In the meantime, customers will be required to use telephony to send data, at rates of about 9.6 to 64 kilobytes per second. While this may seem low when compared with a rate of two megabytes per second, this type of architecture has a small effect on performance because most of the data that is transferred during Internet use is sent from the satellites to the user’s computer, Tepper said.

To speed the delivery of data through the aircraft-to-ground downlink, DeCrane is developing an integrated cabin server/satellite receiver (ICSR), an 18-lb box that will serve as the nerve center for all e-Cabin functions. Total weight of the entire system, including the antenna, is expected to be no more than 35 lb.

Although Bombardier is helping to launch the service, it eventually will be offered to passengers flying aboard aircraft built by other business aircraft manufacturers, according to Tepper. He stressed, however, that Bombardier, as a partner on the program, has wide latitude in defining the e-Cabin concept. Bombardier’s head-start should also give it an advantage over competitors, Fouquette said. DeCrane hopes to keep the price for the system’s hardware, including its dish-type antenna, below $500,000, which is in line with the price of Aero-H satcom.

As spelled out during interviews at the Paris Air Show, over North America the Telstar 6 telecommunications satellite built by Loral Space & Communications will send digital data to aircraft. Telstar 6 carries a total of 52 transponders–24 at C-band and 28 at Ku-band–and covers the U.S., Puerto Rico, the Caribbean  and parts of Canada and Latin America from its 93-deg west longitude orbital position.

Telstar 6’s design is based on Loral’s three-axis, body-stabilized 1300 bus design. Similar type satellites would provide airborne connections over most of the rest of the planet, including the oceans, but Tepper declined to discuss these in detail, explaining that firm agreements with satellite providers were not yet in place.

On the aircraft, a tail-mounted, electronically steered dish antenna built by EMS Technologies of Ontario, Canada, will receive the Ku-band data stream. Measuring 10 in. across, it is the same basic antenna design that has already been certified aboard a number of business aircraft.

Technological Challenges

The idea for Internet services, said Tepper, seriously took wing earlier this spring when the antenna technology became available. While the antenna for the system has not been tested in the air, Tepper said ground testing has shown the technology is adequate for airborne applications, adding that security protocols have already been selected and tested.

The technological challenges that must yet be surmounted, however, are considerable. Unlike some other satellites’ data streams, such as the L-band signal radiated by Inmarsat’s geostationary satellites, Ku-band satellites have a very narrow beam. As a result, antennas that receive Ku-band signals must either be stationary (or nearly so) or they need to have sophisticated steering mechanisms that allow them to continuously track a satellite even during pitch and roll changes. The challenge with DeCrane’s system will be in proving the antenna can hold the Ku-band beam without dropping the satellite connection.

At Paris DeCrane unveiled an entire line of cabin products, including Map.Net, an interactive moving-map system for business jet passengers, and a network server that will connect passengers’ laptop computers or permanently installed computers with the Internet, other computers and printers. Initial network connections will be hard-wired from PCs to the airplane, with wireless connections planned for introduction possibly next year, Tepper said.

A prototype of the system unveiled at Le Bourget was connected to the Internet not through a satellite but by a standard telephone modem line. By next month’s NBAA Convention in New Orleans, Bombardier and DeCrane plan to demonstrate for the first time a fully operational system aboard the Global Express on the static display, which will be made available for use by potential customers.

Until now, no cabin systems maker has stepped forward with a proposed solution for high-speed Internet services, even though business aircraft passengers are clamoring for access to the Web and e-mail. The established avionics makers, including Honeywell and Rockwell Collins, say they are waiting to see what emerges in the Ku-band arena before they decide what direction to take.

After strong starts, Honeywell and Rockwell Collins have slowed development of airborne Internet and e-mail services, with Collins backing out of a deal with satellite up-start GlobalStar for Internet services aboard airliners and Honeywell delaying its airborne e-mail initiatives. A Honeywell spokesman also said airborne Internet services aren’t even on the avionics maker’s radar screen, adding that no such products will be unveiled next month at the NBAA show.

Airshow, meanwhile, has signed an agreement with GlobalStar to provide high-speed (130 kilobytes per second) bidirectional data to business aircraft. Without strong competition from the established avionics makers, who appear to be playing a game of wait-and-see, DeCrane and Airshow have an opportunity to gain a crucial advantage in the market.

With Bombardier moving aggressively to put DeCrane’s system aboard the Global Express, the Canadian manufacturer also has an opportunity to gain the upper hand, if only temporarily until Gulfstream reacts with development of airborne Internet services for the GV-SP. But at least for now, Bombardier believes it is taking a step ahead of its Savannah, Ga. rival.