Printed headline: Faster Connections
As demand for inflight broadband access continues to soar, the amount of time it takes to equip aircraft with the necessary hardware is decreasing.
Keenly aware that minimal aircraft downtime for retrofits is important to their airline customers, satellite-based connectivity providers say that as technology evolves and as engineers become more experienced at fitting these systems, there is the potential to shave even more hours off installation times.
Michael Lorenzini, senior vice president for aircraft technical operations at Gogo, says the connectivity provider has “pretty consistently got down to a 36-hr. process for those airlines that want 36 hr.” on installations of its 2Ku satellite broadband system. Initially, a standalone 2Ku installation took five days before being reduced to three days and then to the current 36 hr.
“My installation team’s focus in life” is achieving further reductions, Lorenzini adds. “I am confident we can get below 36 hr., and we’ve had one or two aircraft where we can get down to 30 hr.,” he notes. Installations are normally performed during scheduled maintenance checks.
Gogo has two models when it comes to installing 2Ku: one managed by Gogo, using its own technicians; and an airline-managed model, under which the carrier does the work in-house and Gogo provides support. The latter is the most popular option.
“In 2018, most of our installs—all but 70—are airline-managed,and we’re in a support function,” Lorenzini says. “We make sure they’re trained up. In some cases, we’re there for two or three visits and then they’re on their own, if they’re doing quite well. Last year, we had quite a few U.S. domestic installations and some international, but this year they’re mostly international.”
The installations, which require “mostly electrical and structural skill sets,” have been going “very smoothly,”
Lorenzini says. “We’ve not had many glitches.” After showing airlines the ropes, Gogo keeps an engineering team on 24/7 standby for backup support.
Inmarsat, which provides airlines with a Ka-band, satellite-based broadband service called GX Aviation and is on the verge of launching the hybrid commercial satellite- and air-to-ground-based EAN (European Aviation Network), also is promising reduced installation times.
Frederik Van Essen, senior vice president for strategy and business development at Inmarsat Aviation, says the EAN system will take half as long to install as GX, which itself has seen equipage times drop.
“The average installation time for GX is four days. For EAN, it’s about two days—so approximately half. The reason is that the antennas are much smaller and simpler,” says Van Essen.
The EAN system features a low-profile, electronically steered antenna that goes on top of the fuselage and connects with Inmarsat’s S-band satellite, as well as two pocket-size antennas underneath the aircraft to connect with Deutsche Telekom’s 4G LTE network of cellular ground towers. The system is targeted at narrowbody aircraft operating in the EU’s 28 member-states, as well as Norway and Switzerland.
“The GX antenna is mechanically steered, and it needs to be attached to the aircraft in a secure way with mounting points fixed to the structure of the aircraft. With EAN, none of that is necessary because it doesn’t require the amount of alignment [associated] with GX,” Van Essen explains.
Dave Helfgott, chief executive of Washington-based electronically steered antenna (ESA) developer Phasor—which announced in June a partnership with Astronics AeroSat to produce dual-beam ESA-based aeronautical terminals—also believes the antennas are faster and more straightforward to install than their mechanically steered counterparts.
“The idea is that installations should be a lot easier because [ESAs] are lighter weight and smaller,” says Helfgott. “There are no new ideas about installing in a new and exotic way, but it’s all done in one piece so it’s very different. It’s going to be a lot more efficient.”
With a height of 2 in., Phasor’s antenna will offer a lower profile option than for some of the terminals currently attached to aircraft underneath radomes that create obvious humps on top of fuselages.
Maintenance also will be improved in an ESA versus a mechanically steered antenna, according to Helfgott.
“Because there are no moving parts, it won’t have any mechanical failures, and because it’s electronic, you can diagnose [maintenance issues] all the time,” he says. “With a [mechanically steered antenna], when one part is not working, the whole thing goes offline.”
The idea behind the Phasor/Astronics dual-beam antenna is it will be able to operate seamlessly with geostationary (GEO) satellites as well as non-GEO satellites such as the low-Earth-orbit (LEO) constellations that are in development. This interoperability, proponents say, will provide airlines with the flexibility to access different networks as they become available without having to invest in all-new equipment.
ThinKom Solutions also made a recent announcement about phased-array aeronautical antennas that will enable multi-constellation, multi-orbit interoperability. The company said in May that its mechanically steered antennas, which it supplies to Gogo for its 2Ku service, are now “fully interoperable with the next generation of LEO and mid-Earth-orbit (MEO) networks, as well as GEO satellites.”
Although ThinKom’s antennas are mechanically steered, the company’s chairman and chief technical officer, Bill Milroy, says they feature as few moving parts as possible, which he believes is positive news when it comes to maintenance.
“Everything is non-contacting. When people think about mechanical systems, they think about things that wear out, but we don’t have that,” Milroy points out. He describes ThinKom’s antennas as being “without the bad parts” traditionally associated with mechanically steered technology, and says “we don’t have the reliability issues you would normally think of with a mechanical system.”
Like the under-development Phasor/Astronics antenna, ThinKom’s terminal is smaller than some of the others on the market, affording it similar installation and maintenance benefits.
“Our antenna has a low profile: It’s 3.5 in. tall, 6 in. when you put the radome on. Because of its lower profile, it does much better on things like bird strikes,” Milroy notes.
Inmarsat’s EAN antennas also require less maintenance due to fewer moving parts, and their smaller profile creates less drag, which improves fuel burn, according to Van Essen. When all of these factors are taken into account, “the total cost of ownership [of EAN] is one-third of [the cost of ownership] of GX,” he says.
“The whole package for EAN weighs 12-13 kg—GX is 100 kg. The antennas on the bottom of the aircraft are the size of a can of Coke, with a slightly larger, oval-shaped, flat antenna on the top,” says Van Essen.
But there are concerns about the cost of low-profile ESAs, points out Gregory Montevideo, senior director at Panasonic Avionics’ Global Communications Group. “The greatest obstacle to achieving a viable, low-profile antenna is cost, he says. The current estimates on low-profile antennas are 3-4 times the current cost of traditional antennas, making it a very difficult proposition for the airlines.”
Montevideo also expresses concerns about how the interoperable antennas under development will be able to alternate smoothly between satellites. “The challenge for all antenna suppliers will be the ability to track and switch satellites in a way that minimizes passenger and operational disruption,” he asserts. “The current LEO operators are working through their ground equipment, including satellite-handover algorithms. Panasonic is evaluating the technical challenges as these satellites become available.”
Panasonic’s eXconnect inflight connectivity system relies on a mechanically steered Ku-band antenna, which it says provides operators with service across 99.8% of airline routes. The amount of time it takes to install the system has fallen as the number of equipages has risen, according to Montevideo.
“The number of connectivity installations has been increasing significantly over the years, so there are now several MRO companies that have gained experience installing [them],” he says. “Generally, connectivity installations take place when an airline is performing other maintenance activities, thus reducing the overall expense to the operator. The current estimate to install a connectivity system is 3-5 days. This assumes an experienced MRO is doing the installation.”
Inmarsat’s four-day GX installation process also falls within this range, but “initially it took closer to a week,” says Van Essen. He adds that the improved equipage times come from practice and the way in which the package is designed.
“A key feature of getting our installation times down has been to start with a robust design. We are working with Lufthansa Technik, which has a long history of installing this type of equipment on aircraft,” says Van Essen. “The first install will always take much longer, but when you start with a factory-like process, [MRO providers] can get the install time much lower. What we’ve seen with Lufthansa Technik is they have prepackaged all the parts that go on the aircraft. They are all laid out so there is no searching for parts. It’s like in Formula 1—when they get the aircraft in, the clock starts ticking.”