Among the most common modifications in aviation today is equipping aircraft for satellite and other broadband connections to support both passengers and cockpits crew. Lufthansa Technik is now well under way in equipping hundreds of Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Eurowings and Germanwings narrowbodies with a Honeywell-Inmarsat Ka-band solution.
Lukas Bucher, head of connectivity engineering at LHT, says the modification requires installing an antenna and radome on the fuselage, and a server and wireless access points in the cabin. The MRO took 14 days to do its first installation in June 2016, but it has learned how to do it better and quicker. Since January 2017, LHT has been installing 10 in parallel, each taking four days for a completely installed and thoroughly tested system.
The antenna is mechanically steered so it can point to a satellite, and it has two additional components, a signal processor on the fuselage exterior and a power manager just inside the fuselage. LHT used ARINC standard 791 to design the installation. “The beauty of 791 is that the installation is discrete and light,” Bucher says. In contrast to some early installations that required drilling up to 2,000 holes to attach the antenna and radome, LHT uses only seven attachment points to existing structures of the airframe and two holes for feeding power and signal wires into the cabin.
The radome, which measures 40 inches by 100 inches by 15 inches, is placed on top of the aircraft forward of the rudder because of aerodynamic benefits. Together, the radome and antenna weigh just 100 kilograms and create less drag than anticipated.
Bucher says LHT designs the installation for durability, ease of maintenance and upgrade potential, because antenna technologies are constantly changing. “Others can do it cheaper, but we save money over the lifecycle.” Maintenance is eased by putting all the wires, server and access points in easily accessed places. That can make a difference of one hour versus eight hours to repair a badly designed installation.
As for upgrades, that ARINC 791 baseplate and limited attachment are key. “You don’t want to reskin the aircraft, because that means buying expensive parts from the aircraft manufacturer,” Bucher notes. In doing its initial installations, LHT prepares documents for future upgrades.
And there will be upgrades. Bucher points out that carriers face a constantly improving but complicated set of offers from firms like Inmarsat, Gogo, ViaSat and their partners such as Panasonic and Thales. And Inmarsat and Deutsche Telekom are joint venturing to build an air-to-ground network in Europe, which would require antennas on fuselage bellies. The new hardware may be complex, but installing it “is not rocket science,” the LHT exec says. The MRO can do the engineering, certification, logistics and then installations in in its shops in Europe, the Americas and Asia.