The race to provide reliable and reasonably fast airborne connectivity has taken some interesting turns, but as with all things technological, improvements continue and end-users are the ultimate beneficiaries of the changes that are coming.
One of the most significant changes is the launch of new low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites, which will provide global internet and communications coverage with far less signal delay (latency) than current satellites. Latency is a function of the distance that signals must travel between transmitters and receivers; the further the satellite, the longer the latency. Newer satellite networks located in LEO will have much less latency and should provide more satisfying service for users, along with lower costs and higher speeds.
Hundreds of new-generation LEO satellites already are in orbit, and networks linking them could be at least partially activated by 2021 and fully operational by 2022. Among these networks are SpaceX’s Starlink, OneWeb (which had filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy but recently found a buyer), Telesat, Amazon’s Kuiper network, and a network being lofted by China’s Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation.
The constellations of the latest LEO satellites promise fiber-optic-network-like speed at a much lower cost. Tests on the Telesat satellites, developed by Airbus, have shown they can deliver speeds of over 400 Mbps, latency of just 40 milliseconds, and seamless beam and satellite handovers, with worldwide coverage.
For business aircraft, the main advantages of these LEO networks concern antenna size, service speed, and coverage area. Manufacturers are already developing aircraft antenna systems that can receive signals from these new LEO satellites.
For example, Satcom Direct, in partnership with Germany’s Qest, is working on an electronically steered, fuselage-mounted, phased-array antenna that will deliver high-speed connectivity for aircraft as small as light jets. Also working with Qest, the company recently unveiled SD Plane Simple, a tail-mounted satcom antenna for midsize to large business jets using more traditional, higher-orbital-altitude Ku-band and Ka-band satellite systems.
To be sure, the new LEO networks are not yet providing service for aviation platforms, and it’s going to take some work to develop airborne equipment, conduct tests, and set up billing mechanisms.
For now, the current connectivity offerings will continue to be the systems of choice, but more choices are clearly on the horizon.
Satcom Direct Adds Customers
Satcom Direct is a service provider for most satcom networks and thus has seen the impact of the coronavirus on customer usage. “In April, there was a significant dropoff in traffic,” said Chris Moore, president of Satcom Direct Business Aviation. In the U.S., satcom traffic dropped by more than 70 percent, he said, but in June there was a recovery, although traffic hasn’t reached pre-Covid levels. Because Satcom Direct also serves government customers, that segment remained fairly busy and “remained extremely strong,” he said.
The quarantines affecting international travel, however, are cutting connectivity activity. Flights within regions such as Europe and inside larger countries are picking up, and consequently, satcom traffic follows, but not across major borders. Those who are able to fly are using their connectivity as much as usual, Moore said, “but flights are still significantly down.”
Like other providers, Satcom Direct is helping its customers manage their requirements. “We’re flexible with each customer,” he said, “and we work through their requirements depending on the mission. Each business aircraft has its own unique story depending on what it’s used for. A lot are being used for humanitarian purposes, some for charter, some are grounded. It’s a mixed portfolio. Even during the pandemic, when people are flying they still want access to that connectivity. It’s become an essential item for the aircraft.”
Satcom Direct is still onboarding new customers and there has been no disruption to its entry-into-service and delivery process, where a team travels to the customer’s location or the customer comes to Satcom Direct’s hangar at Melbourne International Airport in Florida. This isn’t just about teaching customers how to use their systems, but also ensuring that they are doing so in a secure fashion. Satcom Direct has made cybersecurity a key part of its service portfolio.
“Anything that’s activated on our network takes cybersecurity,” Moore said, “and some customers put their own corporate access points in our data infrastructure. Because of our military heritage as well, we understand that need for security and provide best-in-class cybersecurity. When they enter the satcom Direct network, it is not subcontracted out; cybersecurity is always in-house and is probably one of our most popular services.”
Customers can also avail themselves of Satcom direct’s virtual training. All in-person training is done in accordance with Centers for Disease Control guidelines. “We didn’t have any areas where we couldn’t onboard a new client,” Moore said. “But it has been more challenging in terms of social distancing.”
Before the coronavirus, in February Satcom Direct held its Connecting with Customers conference and outlined details of the new Plane Simple antennas.
“These are revolutionary from a technology perspective and easy to install for OEMs,” Moore said. The new antenna allows for a cleaner installation, from five boxes to two: the antenna and modem. “That technology allows us to capture more data analytics for performance,” he said, “and the customer gets increased capability.”
The first Plane Simple antenna will be available in the fourth quarter this year, a Ku-band antenna for Intelsat’s satcom network. Next year, Satcom Direct will offer a Plane Simple antenna for Inmarsat’s high-speed Ka-band network.
The advantage of the smaller and simpler antenna system is that it brings costs down to make the most robust satcom networks available on older airframes as well as newer aircraft.
For even smaller business jets, for example, Embraer’s popular Phenom 300, Satcom Direct is working with manufacturers to develop flat-panel phased-array antennas. Moore sees that market developing in concert with commercial implementation of the LEO constellations, possibly as soon as 2022. Next year, Satcom Direct plans to launch its Surface series antennas for smaller aircraft to access Iridium’s new L-band Next constellation and Certus service, which offers higher-speed service than the original Iridium network.
Viasat Removes Speed Limits
Viasat has eliminated “internet speed limits” for business aviation customers of its Ka-band satcom network, and some customers have already reported seeing airborne connectivity speed tests of 30 to 40 Mbps.
“We removed a software limit, which takes place in a ‘traffic shaper’ in our satellite network,” explained James Person, director of business development and strategy for the satcom operator.
Viasat’s initial Ka-band satcom services peaked at 16 Mbps and this was available even for the smallest aircraft that could accommodate the Viasat airborne hardware, super-midsize business jets like the Gulfstream G280 or Embraer Praetor 500/600. Members of Viasat’s customer advisory board asked if more speed might be available, and it turned out that Viasat’s network had “massive amounts of capacity,” Person said. “Why not open that for our business jet customers?”
The traffic shaper limited the capability of the network for end-users, and once that was removed, the full capacity became available to business aviation operators. “Instead of artificially constraining the internet experience,” he said, “now it will go up to whatever capacity is available in our satellite beams and the hardware in the aircraft.”
When the extra capacity became available recently, Viasat didn’t tell customers, and some called, wondering why they were seeing such high speeds and if the system was working properly.
Person explained that the move to open up the Viasat capacity “isn’t to wow people with high results of speed tests, but more in line with how people use the internet.” Customers now expect airborne internet access to match their experiences at well-connected homes and offices. Streaming content such as movies or large email attachments start buffering quicker on the aircraft and download much faster. “When you start to download, you will appreciate having no speed limits,” he said.
Viasat is unique among satcom network operators in that it also provides the airborne hardware. Its system comprises just three LRUs that can fit on midsize and larger business jets, thanks to the 12-inch antenna. The hardware fits outside the pressure vessel and doesn’t require space in the baggage compartment. The airborne hardware is also forward compatible with Viasat’s next Ka-band satellite network, ViaSat-3, which quadruples the capacity of ViaSat-2 satellites. The ViaSat-3 network is planned to begin service next year.
To accommodate growing customer data needs with the new capacity and speed, Viasat has added a new 200 GB service plan, double the previous maximum plan size of 100 GB. “It’s effectively an unlimited plan,” Person said. “It would be hard for an operator who flies less than 120 hours per month to use that much.”
The top tier 100 and 200 GB plans also include unlimited streaming, which doesn’t count against the plan’s data. This eliminates the need for installation of a separate television system and antenna, he explained. The unlimited streaming, for example, covers services such as YouTubeTV, Hulu, Disney+, and others that provide access to television channels. This is especially attractive for smaller airplanes, he said, which don’t have space to accommodate a separate TV antenna.
Prices for the Viasat airborne hardware start at about $400,000, including a Wi-Fi router such as the Satcom Direct Router or Honeywell’s Forge Router.
Honeywell Forges Ahead
Although installations of Honeywell’s JetWave Inmarsat Ka-band satcom hardware continue to happen on new-build airplanes, aftermarket installations have slowed during the coronavirus pandemic, according to John Peterson, Honeywell, v-p and general manager of services and connectivity. JetWave airborne hardware gives business aviation passengers and crew access to Inmarsat’s high-speed Ka-band JetConnex network, with speeds of up to 33 Mbps.
Like most satcom network providers, Honeywell’s traffic dropped during the pandemic, Peterson said, “but we’re seeing that come back quickly. It should be back to normal about September. We’re happy to see people are flying again, operators are putting airplanes back into service in the business aviation world.”
Meanwhile, Honeywell engineers are working on next-generation satcom technology, he said, “with how to maximize the pipes, the bandwidth, and spectrum. We don’t see this pandemic affecting us long term, it’s a normal variable in the life cycle in business. We have to be ready when the market comes back...and how we make sure when it does come back, we have something more compelling [to offer].
“We’re working closely on hardware, with Inmarsat, and with OEs [original equipment manufacturers],” he explained. “We’ll be rolling out this year, with respect to aircraft networks, some new software and next year some exciting products.” Part of this strategy will be developing products that fit into smaller aircraft, as JetWave currently requires large-cabin jets to accommodate the system’s antenna.
Honeywell’s new Forge cabin router fits that strategy as it is 70 percent smaller and costs much less than earlier Honeywell routers. Software updates add new functionality to the router as well, through Honeywell’s Forge analytics platform, which allows operators to manage flights end-to-end. Forge also offers a cabin connectivity analytics dashboard, flight operations information, navigation database updating, and predictive maintenance analytics.
Forge now integrates with Professional Flight Management’s scheduling software. A new propulsion data reporting system that Honeywell is now testing will integrate aircraft health data with Honeywell’s Maintenance and Service Plan (MSP) monthly reporting. The integration with MSP combines health data from the aircraft and automatically compiles it for monthly reports.
Forge customers now have access to another new feature; pilots have expanded access to D-ATIS airport information, without having to tune ATIS broadcast frequencies or deal with datalink compatibility issues.
More recently, new Forge updates included a link to the ForeFlight electronic flight bag app and its flight planning service. “Now [Forge customers] can access other flight planning providers,” Peterson said.
The Forge portal is available for customers buying Honeywell services such as flight planning, datalink, cabin systems, and satcom. Once signed up for Forge, users can use it to track their fleets, or Forge can be set up for a management company so only administrators can see the fleet while individual aircraft managers have access to the aircraft they oversee. “Privacy is very important,” Peterson noted.
“Later this year we’re adding more partners and capability,” he added. “It’s going to keep getting better.” To that end, Honeywell welcomes outside products and developers to work with Forge.
“We are having a lot of success with incorporating and integrating best in class products,” he said. “We don’t force customers to have to buy all our products and stick exclusively with us. It puts power into the operator to pick who they want, and we are stewards of that. It puts pressure on us to provide that best experience. That’s how software companies work.
“The innovation aspect is the best part,” Peterson concluded, “with new ways to aggregate information and provide value. This is hard to find in aviation because of certification hurdles, it’s hard to be innovative on a regular basis. It takes years to certify. We enjoy being in this niche where we can innovate on a regular basis.”
Collins Aerospace Satcom
Collins Aerospace has partnered with satellite network operator SES to develop LuxStream, a high-speed broadband Ku-band satcom network. LuxStream offers speeds up to 25 Mbps in the U.S. and 15 Mbps over the rest of the globe, excluding the polar regions. Higher speeds will be available, if there is market demand, according to Collins Aerospace.
The SES-15 Ku-band satellite, which covers the U.S., became operational last year, and several aircraft have already installed the LuxStream hardware and are using the service. Collins provides the cabin router and KuSAT-2000 satcom terminal for LuxStream, and its ArincDirect unit is the service provider.
Currently, STCs for KuSAT-2000 installations are available for the Gulfstream GIV/GIVSP, and Bombardier’s Global 5000, 6000, and XRS are next in line in early August. Additional STCs are expected shortly after that for the G450 and Challenger 850, followed by the Falcon 7X, GV/G550, and Challenger 600.
For smaller aircraft or those that don’t need full broadband internet capability, Collins is developing new Certus-capable airborne hardware that it will offer service on Iridium’s Next satellite network. Target aircraft sizes for these new Iridium satcom systems are light jets through air transports and helicopters.
“Collins currently provides a number of Iridium products to the aerospace industry,” according to Joe Gallo, global marketing director for avionics, “and we would assist those customers in upgrading systems to the new constellation, in addition to providing a path via the aircraft manufacturers to receive Certus-capable products on new aircraft deliveries, and assist customers that would like to fit preowned aircraft with a wide range of STCs and service bulletins.”
New Certus-capable hardware should be available for installation in early 2022, Gallo said. Network speeds should eventually reach 1 Mbps, but, he added, “until we can do that we have confirmed speeds to 704 Kbps.”
Collins Aerospace also is expanding the capabilities of its Venue cabin management system, which has reached 1,400 installations in midsize jets through VIP/VVIP business jets in the aftermarket and forward-fit new production aircraft.
A key new Venue feature is 4K video capability, and the first aftermarket installation is underway at West Star Aviation. With the availability of improved video monitors, Collins has developed high-definition Airshow interactive moving maps, which take advantage of sharper HD and 4K images and more vibrant colors.
Passengers can watch the latest Hollywood movies and television shows on bulkhead monitors, in-seat monitors, and mobile devices through Venue’s Stage on-demand service, with audio piped to cabin speakers.
Send Solutions Airtext
While new LEO satcom networks are coming, Iridium remains the network of choice for low-cost airborne connectivity. Although not yet speedy enough for web-browsing and movie streaming, Iridium does provide true worldwide coverage, something that higher-orbiting satellites like those of Inmarsat, Viasat, SES, and Intelsat aren’t able to offer (their coverage isn’t available over polar regions).
Send Solutions founder David Gray figured that most passengers and pilots are satisfied with being able to send and receive text messages and emails without attachments, if the price is significantly lower. The company’s Airtext systems do just that and are in use in everything from single-engine piston-powered light airplanes to the largest business jets.
Certified and installed Airtext units retail for $16,975, which includes voice calling via Iridium, or $9,750 for texting and email only. Send Solutions also sells portable Airtext units, with the voice-capable LT+ for $6,450 and the regular LT at $4,950. Service prices are $300 per year for the first 500 messages, then 5 cents per text. Gray said that some Airtext power users spend about $1,500 a year, which is far less than costs associated with higher-orbit satcom systems.
Airtext users can message FBOs for fuel and other requests using its FBOLink service. The messages are received at the FBOs via email, and FBOs can respond to the aircraft.
Pilots can access digital-ATIS via Airtext, eliminating the need to switch to an ATIS frequency to listen to the broadcast.
A new Airtext feature is seat-to-seat texting, handy during the pandemic for passengers to ask a question of flight crew, according to Gray, without having to visit the flight deck.
Send Solutions has also developed the Airtext map on the iPad. This displays a moving map for passengers to see flight plan and trip information, including points of interest. Bulkhead monitor versions are also available.
BizjetMobile also offers a low-cost Iridium-based messaging system. Its most recent product release is the CrewX texting and email system, retailing for just $2,490. Unlimited service costs $199 per month.
For additional capability, BizjetMobile’s Chiimp Next system provides unlimited messaging and some access to data services as well as voice calling. The system helps operators manage passenger data by keeping them updated on how much data they use. After the flight, Chiimp Next sends an email to each passenger and crewmember to notify them of their usage.
The Chiimp system costs $9,990, plus $299 per month for unlimited texting, email, and voice calling.
Gogo Business Aviation's Lower Altitude
Gogo is leveraging the high-speed capability of its new Avance platform and recently unveiled a lower service level, dropping the altitude at which aircraft can start using the Gogo air-to-ground service to 3,000 feet from 10,000 feet. According to Gogo, this adds 15-20 minutes of extra connectivity availability for a typical flight.
Gogo’s air-to-ground network is available across the U.S. and in parts of Canada and Alaska and network speeds on the Avance L5 platform are similar to 4G speeds on the terrestrial internet, allowing video streaming and other network-intensive activities.
The new 3,000-foot capability is added via a software update, and no physical changes are needed to the airborne hardware. Customer aircraft must be equipped with Avance L3 or L5 systems, or for commercial airline operators, Gogo ATG-4 and ACPU2 technology. There are more than 1,300 business aircraft already equipped with Avance hardware.
During flight testing of the new capability, 50 aircraft utilized the new software over four months, and the service down to 3,000 feet agl was available “at most locations throughout the contiguous United States,” according to Gogo. However, the company added, “Testing shows service may not be available everywhere and system performance may vary from airport to airport, Gogo’s service guarantees apply once an aircraft reaches 10,000 feet [agl].”
“In our flight testing, we found that the Avance L5 consistently performed well at altitudes below 10,000 feet and provided a quality connectivity experience for our passengers,” said Tim Eames, chief pilot for Odin 123, which conducted several test flights. “The additional time to conduct business or make arrangements was valuable and appreciated by our passengers.”
SmartSky's Patent Battle
SmartSky is building a new air-to-ground network that employs beamforming technology using both 4G LTE and emerging 5G spectrums. Its airborne connectivity network has been in development for eight years, with more than 1,000 hours of flight testing by aircraft owners, airlines, and fleet managers.
Although SmartSky had planned to begin widespread service in the U.S. in this year’s second quarter, that has been delayed. “We are continuing to move forward with progress and assessing exactly what that looks like for aviation in this new business reality,” said a SmartSky spokesman. “We just received our 170th patent and we are excited for our current customers and partners to experience our network.”
SmartSky’s network will compete with Gogo as Gogo pioneered air-to-ground connectivity in the U.S., having launched as Aircell in the 1990s. Gogo challenged one of SmartSky’s patents with a filing on April 1, questioning the validity of a SmartSky patent having to do with software-defined radios.
"We strongly believe that the '947 patent granted to SmartSky is not valid," said Sergio Aguirre, president of Gogo Business Aviation. "We have submitted evidence of published materials clearly showing that well before SmartSky asserts to have invented the concepts in the '947 patent, others had conceived of the claimed subject matter. Further, we believe there are many of SmartSky's patents that are not valid. This is only one of many patents we could have challenged in a patent review."
SmartSky filed a response to the Gogo patent challenge on June 22. According to a statement from SmartSky president Ryan Stone, “We believe the Gogo filing is without merit. We believe their argument is based on a highly faulty premise. For their case to hold water, they had to first, and incorrectly, redefine a common industry-standard term to suit their purpose.”
His statement went on: “While there are various specifics in our filing as to why the patent was validly granted and should remain valid, the crux of our argument is one key point. Gogo made a misguided attempt to redefine a commonly used industry term, a software-defined radio, in order to then argue that our patent should not be valid. Our response provides the clear and compelling evidence that Gogo’s redefinition is wrong, we provide ample evidence of the industry-standard definition of a software-defined radio, which when applied to this case proves why our patent was, still is, and should remain valid.”
SmartSky expects a decision from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office in September. The PTO should, he explained, “either decline to initiate further action and effectively stand by its issuance of the SSN patent (similar to a summary judgment) or initiate the [inter partes review] IPR and effectively move things to a formal proceeding in which each side presents its case. This process typically takes about a year before a decision is reached.”