Cabin avionics, communications and evolution of high-speed data

Legacy system improvements and new OEM cabin installations take advantage of satellite upgrades.

By David Bjellos
ATP/Helo. Gulfstream IVSP, Bell 407

Cessna Citation Columbus offers Rockwell Collins Airshow 4000, providing hi-res graphics, 3D moving map and datalink information. This latest offering can support various multimedia applications, video, audio, text and graphics, which are displayed on cabin and flightdeck monitors.

As aviators, we have seen cockpit technology evolve rapidly in terms of amenities and functions that save us time and enhance safety. So too, has the technology grown for cabin applications, where the boss continues doing business between meetings, customer visits and to and from home base.

No longer are a satellite telephone and fax machine sufficient for entrepreneurs and executives. Live e-mail, file-sharing and local area network (LAN) capabilities are essential for the modern corporate jet, whether flown solely within the US or globally.

Increased demand has caused manufacturers and suppliers to increase datalink speeds to those typically found in the office environment. This year, business aviation airframe OEMs will deliver more than 1100 turbine aircraft worldwide, representing over $20 billion in sales, not including aftermarket support.

SkyConnect uses the Iridium satellite constellation and offers upgrades to existing Magnastar users.

The backlog should begin to abate somewhat in the 2010-12 timeframe, but the fact is that more entities are using business aviation than ever before. Videoconferencing and virtual networks work well for some, but most commerce requires direct contact. Business aviation has filled that obligation nicely and will remain a necessary tool for those seeking competitive advantage.

Products and offerings change with the rapidity of computers and even as this report goes to press the statistics will be outdated. This overview is not intended to address every single capability or manufacturer, but rather provide the reader with a synopsis of systems basics, such as antennas and satellite providers, and applications such as broadband multilink (BBML), Swift64 and SwiftBroadband.

As aviators and managers of complex turbine aircraft, it is nearly impossible to keep up with every technology change for the cockpit, much less the cabin. Yet our input is vital for upgrades and new purchases, and a working knowledge of current and future offerings is crucial to finding the right combination of equipment both for the front end and for your principals and their associates.

Since most of our time is spent up front, an occasional talk with our primary users is vital to determine their desires and expectations. Speeds as high as office T1 and T3 lines have not yet been attained, but they are close. Global coverage for these speeds remains elusive but will occur in time as well.

Terrestrial and space-based components

Global aircraft communications really began with ICAO's creation of the Future Air Navigation Systems (FANS) concept in 1983. Governments, airlines and business aviation all rely on the satellite/ground architecture of mobile communications for surveillance, navigation and communications.

Honeywell Ovation touchscreen control lets flightcrews manage all cabin functions from a single source. Available in 10.4 and 6.5-inch options, Ovation allows picture-in-picture for video preview by multiple users in separate cabins.

Simultaneously, the Intl Maritime Convention on Communication by Satellite (Inmarsat) announced plans to service airborne transceivers (already well established in maritime communications), and the World Administrative Radio Conference (WARC) set aside 10 MHz of spectrum for aeronautical needs.

These efforts produced ARINC 741, setting the standard for air-ground antennas and avionics, much as ARINC 429 data busses did for Part 25 applications. Inmarsat is now the primary satellite provider of airborne communications. In 1990, a Gulfstream IV became the first aircraft equipped with a Racal single-channel transceiver, but the cost, complexity and limited service area failed to produce an economically viable product.

Two specific users-the military and business aviation-had been keen to get high-speed data and voice aboard their aircraft. Inmarsat moved quickly and delivered the Swift64 system in the late 1990s.

It did this using a large portion of its existing ground-based stations instead of installing new dedicated facilities-it was also the first to adopt the integrated services digital network (ISDN) data communications standard for aeronautical use.

Inmarsat's goals were lower prices and broader market saturation. Very quickly, communications software engineers were able to compress data modules more efficiently, and by 2002 the data transfer rate was 128 kbit/sec. An upgrade to Swift64 called SwiftBroadband raised the rate to 864 kbit/sec.

Aircraft hardware

Early applications of cabin entertainment and communications were a simple antenna, processor and a few voice handsets located in the cabin where necessary. Today's newer and more complex systems require multiple components.

Bombardier Challenger 300 offers the Lufthansa Technik Nice entertaining system for the iPod. Passengers can bring their music portability to the cabin and beyond.

Typically, an antenna (either Aero H or Aero H+) is mounted at the top of the horizontal stabilizer (in T-tail applications) or patch mounted on the top of the fuselage (for other traditional airframes).

Both require a control unit and interface between the onboard network and satellite-either Ku or L-band.

Finally, a server is required in the cabin as well as a wireless access point and multiband detector. Offerings from satellite providers are not yet fully worldwide in terms of a single-source constellation.

Coverage for the SwiftBroadband application (4th-generation satellites) gives seamless service from all of North America south to mid-Brazil and the western half of South America, the entire North Atlantic track system and a great deal of Western Europe.

Beyond those areas, roaming charges are incurred, and the system automatically transfers between the SwiftBroadband and Swift64 system (earlier versions of satellites). The multiband detector does this seamlessly and is administered through ARINC SKYLink. ITT won the contract for automatic dependent surveillance- broadcast (ADS-B) deployment in the US.

In Europe, Links 2000+ is the system of choice-similar in function to ADS-B, initial installations will begin in 2011. Ultimately, the European Commission wants all pilot/controller communications to go through VHF digital link (VDL).


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