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SITA OnAir CEO: Aircraft Creating More Data, Requiring Greater Connectivity

By | May 5, 2015
      SITA Airport IFC Aircraft

      Shenzhen International-Airport. Photo: SITA

      [Via Satellite 04-28-2015] As the level of data coming off of aircraft continues to grow, SITA OnAir is identifying ways to further increase In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) services for the entire vehicle itself. While passenger connectivity continues to be a boon for this emerging sector, SITA OnAir CEO Ian Dawkins told Via Satellite the company splits its focus one-third on “cabin or passenger” connectivity and two-thirds “aircraft connectivity.”

      Today the company has about 14,000 aircraft connected with one of its “nose-to-tail” services, such as core cockpit communications and flight tracking. Going forward, OnAir plans to further improve these services as events such as 2014’s MH370 and this year’s Germanwings Flight 9525 add to the global impetus for better tracking and visibility within aviation.

      “If an aircraft deviates with altitude or from its flight path, we can send an alert. That means the airline operations center can then communicate with the aircraft. Then, if they can’t communicate, they can reach the Air Traffic Control (ATC) and they can communicate with the aircraft,” said Dawkins. “Today we meet [International Civil Aviation Organization] ICOA and [International Air Transport Association] IATA requirements. We can track aircraft every 15 minutes, but we are working with airlines to bring it down to five minutes and below that. It’s really up to the airlines to decide what their policy is.”
      OnAir provides a free service alert to the SITA member companies, and is providing this service to Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines today. Dawkins mentioned another service OnAir has in the works that would provide more data updates on a regular basis that the company plans to announce more details on in the coming months.

      “We have another project at the moment where we are looking at streaming black box data and other data from the aircraft during the flight. We are trialing that with an airline at the moment, and we will communicate in June who that airline is,” he said. “We’ve done all the development and all the testing, but it is going to go live on a long-range aircraft and a domestic fleet as well. If you link that with the flight tracking, we really have what you call an end-to-end aircraft solution.”

      According to NSR Research Director Claude Rousseau, safety communications, map updates, and positioning/monitoring of various sensors are the top drivers of IFC beyond passenger connectivity. He told Via Satellite the technology for satellite tracking and streaming data off of aircraft is already there, and that it is mainly down to timing, which “will depend on the willingness of aircraft owners (airlines for the most part) to pay for tracking and streaming data services.”

      Rousseau added that regulations are having a significant impact on uptake. When planes fly beyond the reach of VHF and HF technologies, they rely heavily on L-band satellite services. New rules could ultimately lead to greater uptake of these services.

      “Regulations are very influential so long as it allows for a variety of connectivity sources to be used, to give end-users choices,” explained Rousseau. “But a multitude of factors come into play, such as bandwidth availability, safety and reliability of the link, and integration with current avionics and data communications systems such as HF and VHF. Right now, it does not have the large impact that passenger connectivity demand does, but it could be a significant growth driver, especially for low data rate services, much like regulation has done in the maritime connectivity market.”

      Dawkins said it’s currently a challenge to pull all of the necessary data off of an aircraft while it is flying because of the limited means there are to do this. To resolve this issue, OnAir stays agnostic to the type of service employed, and is even looking to work with companies that could be considered competitors if practical.

      “What we are doing is looking at offloading that [data] over whatever medium you think of, whether it is Ku or Ka, whether it is Swiftbroadband — we are providing that capability because the airlines want us to help manage it. So we are providing a core link to the aircraft to offload data, then we bring it back into our system, whichever link it’s got,” he said, adding that High Throughput Satellites (HTS) are well suited to serve long-range aircraft that need global service.

      Emirates Airline, for example, provides Wi-Fi on some planes completely through SITA OnAir, but on Boeing 777s, the service is managed through Panasonic Avionics’ IFC system. OnAir can also send certain data through secure connections, and other data through an alternative channel. Dawkins said as the company introduces more health monitoring systems, it can decide further on what will go over a “critical path” or through a typical broadband solution.

      Dawkins highlighted Asia and the Middle East as the frontrunners for “nose-to-tail” connectivity, with benefits in operational improvement and not just passenger connectivity driving demand. Africa is also starting to see traction, where OnAir gained TAAG Angola as a customer, and the company has several campaigns going in Latin America. Dawkins anticipates within the next 24 months the majority of the big carriers in Europe will take greater steps beyond cabin connectivity toward full aircraft connectivity. And as modern aircraft are rolled out of factories, he expects they will be increasingly equipped to provide these services.

      “I think just connecting the aircraft itself is opening up a lot of opportunities. When you think about new aircraft — the A350, the B787, the A380 — these aircraft have enormous amounts of data that can be available; thousands of points that can be streamed and offloaded on the ground” Dawkins explained. “There is a requirement to bring a different level of communications to these aircraft and I think that’s going to drive the aircraft manufacturers who haven’t really given the capability to offload the data in an efficient way. We are helping them do that so we expect all new aircraft will be connected.”