For many years, inflight entertainment and connectivity giant Panasonic Avionics has identified as an “avionics” company only in name.
That changed last year when Panasonic acquired Morrisville, North Carolina-headquartered AirDat, a long-time Iridium value added reseller and equipment provider that is best known for its patented Tropospheric Airborne Meteorological Data Reporting (TAMDAR) system.
You could say that AirDat has served as the gateway drug for Panasonic to make its foray into avionics. Iridium now counts Panasonic as a partner, and lists Panasonic as providing the Iridium 9522A Satellite Transceiver and the Iridium 9522B Satellite Transceiver (each support all of Iridium’s voice and data services) plus the Iridium 9601, which is billed as combining the global coverage of the Iridium satellite constellation with the low latency of the Iridium Short Burst Data (SBD) Service.
“AirDat [which has been renamed Panasonic Weather Services] had already been doing this for years – they buy the radios, they package them up, and sell them. And all we’re doing is just going to take that product, and package it with ours, and move it off the line for airlines,” explains Panasonic VP Global Communications Services David Bruner.
The company recently announced that Icelandair has signed up for a solution that Panasonic is calling ‘FlightLink’, which leverages Iridium’s network to support flight deck voice and data, independent GPS, continuous real-time aircraft tracking, and weather data aggregation “everywhere commercial airplanes fly”. A key component of FlightLink is TAMDAR, which collects high quality weather data from the atmosphere during the flight.
To be clear, says Bruner, having the ability to offer TAMDAR “doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll put sensors on” every airline partner that signs for Iridium voice and data. “We’ll do it on a lot of airplanes but we’ll sell this [Iridium voice and data] as an independent solution and package it with our broadband” eXConnect Ku-band connectivity solution.
This positions Panasonic to ultimately package safety services-certified equipment together with eXConnect, he says. “We took that Iridium product and are now offering it to airlines all over the world. It’s in the process of being certified for safety services, and it will also be used very heavily in China for voice, which is required in China for every air transport aircraft. Iridium covers every inch of the globe, it’s an ‘everywhere solution’ whereas eXConnect is massive bandwidth where everyone flies.”
With the launch of Iridium NEXT, says Bruner, Panasonic will be able to “package this with our eXConnect product” and basically offer Iridium hardware “for free, and you get a redundant service”. When it’s free, he suggests, “all customers will go for it. You could take just Iridium only, but it will be available in that packaging that makes it so simple for the airline and they can do it for free.”
It’s important to note that the hardware will be free, but airlines will still incur a cost for Iridium service.
Before the tragic disappearance of Malaysia Airlines MH370, Panasonic was already looking to offer this sort of flight tracking solution. “Our guys were already doing this before anything happened. It’s a value service that a lot of airlines want, Iridium moves it off so easily,” says Bruner. The aviation industry is now considering what it needs to do to ensure we never see a repeat of MH370. Bruner says he “absolutely” believes the two players in the field will be Iridium and Inmarsat.
“I think what’s unusual is Rockwell, Honeywell [and] Thales actually repackage Iridium’s solutions from other people, put their brand on it, and resell them,” says Bruner, stressing that Panasonic is not taking this approach. “We’re bringing in our own, packaging our own – [both] this current product and the next generation product by Panasonic [over NEXT].
“So we’re not seen as an avionics supplier providing those types of communications solutions, but we are.”