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Smarter Connectivity?

With more aircraft getting connected, industry ponders ways on how to make the process better.

Thousands of aircraft are going to get Internet connectivity in the next few years, and thousands more will likely upgrade or change their present connections. The latest connectivity has been provided by High Throughput or even Extreme Throughput satellites, in some cases combined with air-to-ground connections. But is there a better way to connect aircraft?

The folks at Airborne Wireless Network think there is and have just successfully performed a Proof of Concept Flight Test in Roswell, New Mexico, using two Boeing 767s and a temporary mobile mast system to emulate a ground station. The basic concept is using commercial aircraft themselves to create a high-speed broadband network.

Airborne CEO Michael Warren explained the idea at SITA’s May Air Transport IT Summit. Wireless Internet can travel 240 miles between aircraft, and there is almost always another aircraft within 240 miles. For example, there are typically 5,000 commercial aircraft in U.S. skies at any given time. Moreover, aircraft within 100 kilometers can transmit and receive 10 Gigabits per second with wireless laser, much ampler than the 100 Megabits per second provided by the best satellite systems. And because the relay would not rely on expensive satellites and rocket launches, it could be much cheaper.

The equipment needed would also be compact and modest. A small aircraft platform with an aperture of 70 millimeters would suffice for both transmission and reception. Warren contrasts this with the mechanically steered antennas now needed for Ku- and Ka-band satellite communication. These can increase aircraft weight 400 to 600 pounds and require a radome that increases drag by about as much as expensive winglets reduce drag. Installation and maintenance would also be much easier, quicker and less expensive with the Airborne device.

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