Satellite Communications and Aviation Safety are Looking Up!
Emergency Comms talks to David Coiley with Inmarsat
David Coiley is Vice President, Aviation at Inmarsat.
Inmarsat provides a portfolio of global mobile and transportable broadband communication services via satellite solutions across its main areas of maritime, aeronautical and land. Inmarsat’s aviation safety portfolio is used by most of the world’s leading airlines, business jet operators, general aviation and government agencies.
Q: Inmarsat has had a long-standing reputation for safety communication protocols in commercial and civil aviation stretching back for decades. Tell me a little about that history and relationship.
A: The company history was originally formed on the maritime side of things and aviation services evolved from that, taking advantage of exactly the same type of solutions that delivered high quality, high reliability communications to the maritime industry. Of course aviation services are not just about aviation traffic over the seas, it’s also about coverage in remote airspace in places such as Siberia, Australia and other continental landmass areas. We were able to exploit many of the facilities and capabilities that our maritime colleagues had put in place, but of course we had to apply them for aviation systems and services – in particular the Classic Aero Services, which have been in place for over 20 years.
Q: I understand that Inmarsat was the first operator to comply with the requirements of the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) recommendations for global safety communications, can you elaborate?
A: That was the culmination of almost ten years of effort for Inmarsat. We were the pathfinder in the use of satellite communications for aviation safety prior to receiving the first, necessary approvals from industry bodies such as ICAO. Initially, in the 1990s the industry was rightly cautious in its approach to the new satellite technology. It didn’t want to rush things and was very thorough in its approvals. With that experience behind us all, the process is now much faster and we hope to benefit from that with regard to our new SwiftBroadband-based safety services.
Q: What were the greatest challenges in those early years of developing and deploying the “Classic Aero” Services?
A: It’s important to remember that there were a couple of key trial programmes that went into securing the initial approvals. ‘Prodat’ – one of the very first aviation satcom trials – and Inmarsat’s Data-1 were among the early services that provided a relevant basis for the development of subsequent offerings. Data-1 was the ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) Data Link precursor service that became the Inmarsat ‘Classic’ Aero voice and Data-2 service, which has been in use for the last twenty years by thousands of aircraft around the world. So it was a process involving not just the main iterations but all the trial and pre-operational services that went into them.
Q: And now you are actively promoting ‘Classic Aero Services’ as well as integrating and leveraging new technologies such as SwiftBroadband. Tell me a little more about that in terms of the relative advantages and challenges of such offerings.
A: The baseline is the Classic Aero Service, which was defined by the safety service requirements, i.e. the ability to deliver ACARS Data Link messaging – a highly reliable, mission-critical text-based service not dissimilar to Telex – to aircraft flight decks using systems adopted by the whole of the industry. ACARS Data Link was a key requirement for our data-based services, although alongside that was the voice capability that both the captain and the co-pilot are required to have at any point in the flight. Our original Classic Aero Services were designed to provide those capabilities, which provided the basis on which passenger services could later piggyback, offering various other applications including telephone services. In the case of SwiftBroadband, it’s an IP network service, bringing the internet age to aircraft at long last while also delivering significantly greater flexibility, as well as greater economies.
Q: You say “at long last,” and rightfully so. Why has it been so challenging to bring the IP environment to the commercial and business cockpit?
A: What we’ve had to do is to take that IP communications platform and make it sufficiently resilient and robust to meet several high reliability requirements – high availability, high performance and the ability to turnaround messages within a set time. SwiftBroadband is the aviation variant of our BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network) technology, which is in our latest generation I-4 satellites. What we are doing is taking that basic IP platform that was designed around 3G cellular technology and providing priority, precedence and pre-emption, which gives safety services assured access whenever communication is required. This ensures pilots get priority access to voice or data communications as they require them, and also that aircraft requiring assured access to a satellite network get priority over all other users. Pre-emption means that if the system is busy at any one time with someone making a phone call or surfing the internet, we have the ability to manage and re-assign network usage so that pilots can get access to the communications they need, when they need them.
Q: So it sounds like you have taken kind of a “Best of Both Worlds Approach” when it comes to integration with legacy technologies?
A: That in essence is what we’ve done. We’ve provided the robustness and the reliability that are the hallmarks of Inmarsat’s network services, and which are crucial to ensuring the availability of communications as well as the delivery of messages or voice calls within a predefined timeframe, all of which firmly meet the standards the industry has set for these services. Among the benefits of implementing both Classic Aero and SwiftBroadband is greatly increased choice, allowing customers to take only those services that best match their requirements. The unique feature however is that it enables us to upgrade the aircraft from the older Classic Aero system to the higher performance, SwiftBroadband.
Q: In a nutshell what is the main advantage of SwiftBroadband?
A: The key benefit of SwiftBroadband is that it does everything Classic Aero does but more efficiently and at lower cost by providing broadband IP data on the flight deck or indeed any part of the aircraft. Inmarsat is uniquely able to do this and uniquely able to prioritise that data. Recently there’s been an increasing trend of aircraft operators and manufacturers to have their aircraft connected at all times. Various aircraft systems require online access, and this IP network gives them ubiquity to synchronise the aircraft with a whole host of systems on the ground. For example, electronic flight bags or EFBs are now given to flight deck crews to replace the 60-odd lbs of manuals they used to carry around the world in their oversized pilot cases. All manuals can now be contained on a device that’s as small as a tablet PC. It’s the perfect method to provide and integrate real-time weather data, charts, flight plans, manuals, maintenance data etc. directly into a tool that’s easy for the pilots to access. And that’s just one benefit of SwiftBroadband over Classic Aero and other systems – the priority IP network capability of SwiftBroadband gives us the ability to synchronise and provide real-time IT-based information in electronic flight bag and other aircraft systems.
Q: Without revealing anything that could be considered proprietary of course, what do you think is next in Aviation Safety Communications in general, and specifically for Inmarsat as regards meeting those future needs?
A: I can tell you about a few things we’re working on right now. One is under the heading, ‘Smaller, Lighter, Cheaper’, where we’re bringing everything we do with SwiftBroadband down to smaller, lighter and even more cost-effective aircraft systems, which aircraft operators love. Size and weight for operators is always about cost, so bringing the size down while retaining the capabilities is very attractive and we’ll be implementing that within 18 months. We’re also doing a lot in terms of position reporting and flight tracking. The ability to downlink flight data recorder information is something that SwiftBroadband is in a perfect position to deliver. And more generally, we’re also looking to provide additional IP-based services to the flight deck and aircraft systems. Another concept, called SwiftBroadband Private Network, effectively enables us to create a private network for flight deck and operational applications, which airlines and aircraft operators appreciate and which gives them yet another reason to evolve with Inmarsat, and our proven safety services.
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