It’s rare when a new program in aviation is able to stay on schedule. Delays are common when bringing new-design products or technology to market. Just ask Bombardier, which has deferred entry-into-service (EIS) of the CSeries until late 2015.
One program that seems to be hitting its benchmarks so far is Global Xpress (GX), Inmarsat’s multi-billion dollar program to provide near global inflight connectivity to aviation, maritime, government and enterprise clients over a network of Ka-band satellites.
Honeywell, which has been developing the GX terminals and antenna sub-systems for commercial and business aircraft, completed critical design review (CDR) of the hardware “at the back end of last year”, reveals Honeywell director marketing and product management John Broughton.
“All engineering units now are operating in the lab. We’re starting some of the key integration activities, and getting test capabilities in place in about three different Honeywell sites so we’re very happy with where we’re sitting right now,” he adds.
Inmarsat and Honeywell continue to track toward making GX service available in 2015. On 8 December, the first of three GX Ka-band satellites successfully launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The remaining satellites are expected to launch in the second and third quarters of 2014.
While EIS of GX hardware is targeted for 2015, Honeywell “will be installing the equipment on Honeywell’s own aircraft for the flight testing activities in the back end of 2014”, says Broughton. And Boeing has said it intends to offer GX hardware line-fit from 2015.
Separately, Bill Gates’ Kymeta venture is progressing in its development of metamaterials-based flat panel Ka-band antennas, and, as previously reported, intends to begin testing its terrestrial and portable transportable devices over the first GX satellite as early as June 2014. Final deliverables to Inmarsat are due from Kymeta in January 2015 and then the two firms will enter discussions about whether to enter a more formal arrangement.
Because Honeywell is the terminal unit provider for the GX program, it is up to Honeywell if it wants to embrace Kymeta’s antenna solution. Honeywell’s Broughton says, “It’s a technology that we continue to watch really closely from a number of companies, Kymeta being the main one. Phased array in terms of the mechanical impact on the airframe will be very attractive.”
Industry consultant Bob Mann wonders if Kymeta’s technology might leapfrog mechanically steered antennas. “That would be what I would term a military grade solution and I would think that, while there is a premium on cost, it would be earned out quickly. So I suspect you’re talking about earning it back easily, even if there is a capex premium up front.”
But the big challenge for everyone in the antenna world is that specifications for performance are pretty tight. “Connexion by Boeing started with phased array and migrated to mechanically steered because that was the only way to get the low angle performance. We’ll go to market with a mechanically steered antenna and I think living with it for a few years. It’s premature to predict a timeline on other technologies. But there is no question they’re of interest,” says Honeywell’s Broughton.