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Inmarsat Exec on Streamlining Cockpit Operations with Satellite

By | May 9, 2017
Cpt. Mary McMillan, Inmarsat VP of safety and operational services. Photo: Inmarsat.

Cpt. Mary McMillan, Inmarsat VP of safety and operational services. Photo: Inmarsat.

As an experienced pilot herself, Capt. Mary McMillan has witnessed first-hand the birth, evolution and implementation of satellites in the aviation sector. Now, as Inmarsat’s vice president of safety and operational services, she’s uncovering new ways to use that technology to streamline operations in the cockpit.

Via Satellite caught up with McMillan to explore some of those capabilities ahead of her “EFBs, Weather Applications, and Flight Tracking Assessed” panel at the GCA Summit 2017 in Arlington, Virginia, between June 7 and 9.

VIA SATELLITE: In her recent Q&A, Tara Bamburg pointed out that Southwest Airlines skipped Air-to-Ground (ATG) networks entirely in favor of satellite systems. Do you believe this is the best way to approach connectivity in the skies?

McMillan: I think that’s very interesting. Obviously it’s a direction that I think is appropriate to take for the industry. We’re in kind of a unique situation in that we have a limited resource called spectrum, where we have more availability at higher performance via satellite than we do via ground networks. So there are some places in the world, such as Europe, where the Very High Frequency (VHF) networks are almost saturated and will be saturated within a very short space of months or years. There are certain areas of the world where you don’t want to add any additional ground infrastructure, and at this point we can actually provide the same sort of service and performance using space-based infrastructure — and we can do it at either a similar or in some cases a lower cost.

VIA SATELLITE: How are Inmarsat’s aviation customers currently leveraging connectivity?

McMillan: Satcom is moving from being a safety utility to a strategic asset. That’s really where the discussion comes in around what’s happening in safety and operational applications and how this actually benefits the airlines.

Traditionally, the only reason you had satcom on your airplane was to allow you to have communications and surveillance in oceanic or remote airspace. It was essentially a backup communication that you used only when you were out of reach of land-based facilities. But that is changing.

We’re not only going to be maintaining our current profile in terms of cockpit communications in oceanic and remote airspace, but you’ll also see us add satcom as standard equipment on narrow body fleets and single-aisle aircraft as we create the ability to bring big datasets into the cockpit to use in different applications to create efficiency, improve safety, and derive an environmental benefit.

Don’t miss Mary’s participation in the “Operations 2.0: EFB’s, Weather Applications, and Flight Tracking Assessed” panel at the GCA Summit 2017. Register now!

VIA SATELLITE: What new connectivity applications for pilots do you see emerging in the near future?

McMillan: NASA, as you know, is at the forefront of looking at ways to improve both efficiency and safety in our industry. We will be evaluating the use of satcom for a program that NASA calls Traffic Aware Strategic Aircrew Requests (TASAR). It’s basically taking all sorts of data streams, merging them, and allowing pilots to request better routing. It’s able to bring in different data sets and merge them in such a way that pilots can be predictive and know where to find better routes.

VIA SATELLITE: How are you helping mitigate costs for your customers?

McMillan: We’re looking at additional ways to incentivize airlines and help them manage the equipage costs. We’re working on the development of what we’re calling “satcom as a service,” so rather than investing in the hardware and the service package, we’re working with a couple of our manufacturers to understand if they could provide this more like your cellphone plan, where you buy a plan and you get the cellphone. There are a number of business models that we’re investigating.

At the same time, we’re encouraging use of the data. We’re at the beginning of understanding and creating what we think will be new value-added services that are available to airlines for the very first time. Until we actually have some history behind it, we won’t know or understand how much data the airlines will really use or what services they would use the data for.

VIA SATELLITE: Do you view In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) as a particularly profitable vertical for Inmarsat?

McMillan: Satcom has always been seen as very expensive but we actually just completed a study about three months ago, conducted by Helios, to understand what sort of value has been derived by the industry. It’s conservatively estimated that we’ve put almost $3 billion worth of value into the aviation sector through the ability to increase capacity and allow airlines to communicate with their aircraft regardless of where they are.

When you start looking at the cost of satcom compared to the value that has been derived, I think any airline would have no disagreement with the fact that it allows airlines to be profitable in sectors that they wouldn’t have been able to manage without this ability to communicate.

Do we think this is a key part of our business? Yes, we do. We believe that we’re going to continue to be the leaders in the cockpit communications and we’re investing considerably into our own network in order to ensure we have a robust and resilient space segment.

I flew professionally for 30 years and actually started flying before we had satellites in aviation, so I’ve seen first-hand what this ability to communicate regardless of where you are actually means to us. We’ve driven a lot of value into the sector.

VIA SATELLITE: What kind of policies or regulations can help enable these new connectivity applications?

McMillan: We’re participating with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in the development of the recommended practices around the Global Aeronautical Distress Safety System (GADSS). There are essentially four parts to it. The first is this 15-minute tracking requirement. Airlines have always had to know where their aircraft are and understand the status of it, and what GADSS is doing is formalizing that into a recommendation to the state.

The next phase is automatic distress tracking. Under a certain set of triggers or the development of some sort of stress condition, the aircraft would then trigger a position report at least once every minute. The whole purpose behind that is to heighten our awareness of where the aircraft is. One minute basically gives us a 6-mile radius of where that aircraft is.

But what we really need to know is what’s happening to that aircraft, so the third phase is the development of flight data streaming. We’re calling this “black box in the cloud.” Instead of actually recording the information on physical recorders, we have the ability with our new satcom to now stream that data in real time. So the flight data streaming tells us what’s happening to the aircraft while the flight tracking tells us where the aircraft is.

The fourth and final phase is developing the interface to the rescue coordination centers. Today, if an aircraft is in distress, that message has to go through the air traffic control facility, which then alerts the rescue coordination centers. The final phase of GADSS would be to create a more automatic interface with the rescue coordination centers so you can put your resources on standby and hopefully provide a more immediate response to the situation.

We are very big proponents of all four of those phases, and we’re working with ICAO and other global bodies to help design what some of the triggering offenses are and other technical details.

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