Panasonic maps a plan for airlines to exploit Iridium and Ku

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Panasonic Avionics’ plan to drive operational benefits for airlines through connectivity by exploiting the low-bandwidth Iridium satellite network together with broadband Ku is becoming clearer.

Speaking to RGN for a broader Future Travel Experience report about aircraft e-enablement in advance of the Cabin Integration Symposium, Panasonic Avionics director Jeff Rex described how the firm envisages a scenario whereby it pulls weather data from aircraft over Iridium; uses this data to create graphical weather reports on the ground; and then pushes dynamic reports to flight crew in the air via Ku.

Panasonic is already accomplishing part of this feat. In early 2013, the company acquired AirDat, whose core technology is the patented TAMDAR (Tropospheric Airborne Meteorological Data Reporting) sensor, which collects highly sophisticated weather data from the atmosphere during flight in collaboration with over a dozen partner airlines. The data is transmitted via Iridium to an Orlando facility. Then it is assimilated into specialized atmospheric models to produce short-term 24-hour, 48-hour and 72-hour model forecasts.

AireonTaking those graphical weather reports and transmitting them via Ku to the aircraft in-flight is a natural next step, says Rex, who previously served as VP engineering & production integration at AirDat. “The combination of Iridium and Ku is one of the main reasons the (AirDat) acquisition was done, because it gives us a powerful overlap that covers anywhere on the globe and the combination of the two give us what we think is an unparalleled offering.”

“We’re definitely working on having the two systems work together to have optimized data flow to and from aircraft where it makes sense,” he says. While it’s impossible to offer graphical weather updates to pilots over the low-bandwidth Iridium service, “over [broadband] Ku, it’s very doable, and becomes one of the primary applications where we could use Ku for the weather side”.

Security issues must be addressed before Ku can be used to support this type of crew application.

Panasonic has not decided if it will ultimately functionally bring together its Lake Forest, California-based operations center – which keeps track of all Panasonic IFEC-equipped aircraft – and the AirDat operation, which has since been renamed Panasonic Weather Services. The Orlando facility is pretty specialized, and is one of only two facilities in the nation where “we could do what we needed to do in terms of data and power redundancy”, says Rex. “The geography [of the two centers] doesn’t matter too much, we have them linked together in certain aspects and will continue to link them together.”

TAMDAR comprises just one aspect of the cockpit communications and tracking solution that Panasonic is now selling as FlightLink, acquired through AirDat and which is now core to Panasonic’s flight tracking proposal to IATA/ICAO. FlightLink also includes a processing box, which houses all the communication protocols with the flight deck and an internal GPS; and an antenna that is about the size of an iPhone.

“Historically, the primary reason to get the system was satcom and secondary was the weather. The larger the airline, the more important the weather is for them,” says Rex. To date, all customers “have gotten it with weather”, though some airlines are now assessing FlightLink without weather.

Panasonic is also offering a free service element to any aircraft equipped with TAMDAR. “Once weather data comes off automatically, in five-minute intervals, that [position data] is already coming and that’s included in the packaging that would be free data to the airline,” says Rex.

While some operators are waiting for guidance from IATA, says Rex, “Others say, ‘we’re not going to be caught in that situation; we’ll put something on the planes to track them’.”

In May of this year, Panasonic announced a strategic partnership and revenue share agreement with AVTECH, whose sophisticated Aventus NowCast product provides aircraft with optimized descent paths to save fuel.

“The AvTech product is sold with our wind grids behind it, but [the relationship] is not exclusive at the moment. If an airline has its own internal method of doing that, we can still sell an airline wind grid data,” explains Rex, noting that Aventus NowCast is essentially “an additional product offering so someone could get FlightLink; they could get NowCast; they could get both. You could do Flightlink for operational benefits, then do high-res forecasting and get a wind grid for en route trajectory, and integrate that into flight operations. So there are a whole suite of possibilities between weather and connectivity.”

Asked by RGN if Panasonic is comfortable with the health of the current Iridium network, Rex says, “We wouldn’t have chosen it if we didn’t think it wasn’t the most reliable system for what we need to do, which is truly global airline tracking. We haven’t seen problems with Iridium and we’ve been working with them to stream data for 11 years now, and we’ve been able to help them through our quality systems.”

He suggests that over the last decade, no other firm has streamed data over Iridium like AirDat. “It’s always streaming from the aircraft; constant streaming and we have good data and metrics on how it works and we’ve been really happy.”

Panasonic plans to upgrade its FlightLink equipment along with Iridium’s upgrade to NEXT “so we’ll be capable of doing whatever NEXT can do. There is a lot more we can do with higher frequency data movement and tracking; NEXT will open up doors.”

Today Iridium reported financial results for the second quarter of 2014 and affirmed its full-year 2014 and long-range outlook. Net income was $15 million for the three-month period as compared to $15.4 million for the second quarter of 2013. Operational EBITDA “grew 7% year-over-year to $54.7 million, beating the consensus estimate by 7%. The better-than-expected results were a function of strength across all product lines and businesses, with an emphasis on service revenue growth. Likewise, revenue grew 8% y/y and beat the consensus estimate by 4%,” says Raymond James analyst Chris Quilty.

Furthermore, Quilty notes that Iridium NEXT remains on budget and on track for a June 2015 launch. “Iridium achieved several operational milestones during the quarter, thus enabling its prime contractor, Thales Alenia Space, to move forward with high volume production for all 81 space vehicles.”

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