Broadband connectivity in aviation is often discussed in terms of what it means for the airline passenger experience, but important work is being done to ensure that a fatter, faster connectivity pipe – Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband service – can be used to transmit prioritized voice and ACARS/Future Air Navigation Systems (FANS) data when airliners are out of reach of land-based communications. The first airline customer for this so-called SB Safety service will be announced shortly.
In May, ACARS-capable SB Safety equipment was installed on an Airbus Corporate Jet (ACJ). Inmarsat heralded the achievement as the start of “a revolution in communications for the flight deck” because SB Safety provides an upgrade path for FANS for the nearly 10,000 aircraft currently relying on Inmarsat Classic Aero services (launched over 20 years ago) and provides greater value to those aircraft that already have SwiftBroadband installed, or will be equipped in the near future. The entire system has undergone Verification and Qualification (VAQ) testing by SITA, the company that acts as service provider to the airlines.
So far, the SB Safety system on the Airbus A319 ACJ has “demonstrated very fast ACARS message delivery performance, comparable to VHF”, reveals Miranda Mills, Inmarsat Senior VP, Aviation. “This is an important step that allows Inmarsat to test its SB Safety satellite network, SITA to test its ground interconnects and routing, and Cobham to assess the performance of the SB Safety software on the modified Aviator 300D terminal.” SB safety operates over Inmarsat’s I-4 constellation of L-band satellites.
Inmarsat is in discussions with a number of commercial airlines that are “very keen” to be involved in the first SB Safety trials on air transport aircraft, Mills tells RGN. The company “expects shortly to be able to announce signing the first air transport airline for trials” of SB Safety, with the first trial installations expected in the first quarter of 2015. FANS approval is expected to follow in 2016.
“SB Safety provides a unique combination of services,” suggests Mills. “An operator can access ACARS services for applications such as FANS alongside broadband connectivity for new IP based applications, which will help airlines to optimize their operations and procedures.” These include inflight updates to Electronic Flight Bags and Flight Data Record downloads. “SwiftBroadband additionally provides the very high levels of availability that are necessary for these applications, which will quickly become business critical,” adds mills.
The availability of SB Safety is also good news for those airlines that already split SwiftBroadband channels between cockpit and cabin, but want assurances that transmissions are completely secure. A key point is that SB Safety provides a prioritized IP data pipe for the cockpit, for both security and continuity of service, notes Leo Mondale, Inmarsat’s President of Aviation.
In the aftermath of the tragic disappearance of Malaysia Airlines MH370, Inmarsat’s efforts have taken on a new level of significance, especially since some 5,000 aircraft in the world fleet are already equipped with – or earmarked for – SwiftBroadband for cockpit and/or cabin connectivity.
Airlines that are installing aircraft with Ku- and Ka-band connectivity solutions are also studying ways to exploit the pipes for operational and safety gains. However, neither Ku nor Ka has been approved for safety services, or show any sign of garnering such approvals in the near term.