The market for electronic phased array antennae is heating up. Panasonic Avionics and Boeing have teamed up to provide a new, light-weight antenna system that will give airlines yet another – and potentially quite appealing – option to consider as they look to provide inflight connectivity to passengers.
The 2.7” tall profile is the slimmest solution available and it is also being billed as the lightest at 140 pounds. The expected reduction in fuel burn with the new antenna is described by David Bruner, Panasonic’s VP of Global Communications Services, as “winglets for satellite communications”. Moreover, the new solution is compliant with the ARINC 791 mounting specification which makes for easier installation options. The smaller, lighter solution is targeted at narrowbody aircraft; these are the bulk of planes flying and of new deliveries. They also require lighter systems in order to provide connectivity in a cost-effective manner. The system is expected to be available for commercial installation in Q4 2016.
Bruner is quite positive about the development partnership with Boeing Network & Space Systems, noting that it offered significant advantages for the solution. While some other vendors are “still in the ‘trying to make it work’ phase” Boeing and Panasonic are taking existing technology and applying it to a new market. There is still work to be done over the next two years to deliver this solution but those efforts are “All about hitting price target using existing technology originally designed for military service,” according to Bruner.
The electronic phased array solution is smaller and lighter than mechanical antennae systems but still has some limitations. Because of the slim profile it has trouble connecting to geostationary satellites while flying north or south of 55 degrees latitude. This limitation will exclude some airlines from choosing such a solution on their long-haul fleets as those planes may fly intercontinental routes which frequently go too far north for the system to be viable. Given the target market of narrowbody aircraft, however, this limitation may not be such a problem.
Moreover, the electronic phased array system offers solutions to other issues typically faced by the mechanical array antennae. Operating in equatorial regions often can result in signal overlap with adjacent satellites due to the beam shape. Operators typically counter this by reducing transmit strength which reduces available bandwidth. The phased array solution provides a targeted beam which allows full transmission power without overlap interference.
Bruner identified several markets where the new antenna solution is a strong candidate, including much of Asia, Brazil and regional flights within the Americas. Speaking to the value of the phased array solution in equatorial regions he suggested, “Indonesia has a ton of aircraft operating near the equator. This is perfect for that market.”
The new solution is similar to the 2Ku offering proposed by Gogo in partnership with Thinkom. Like that solution there will be two antennae, one for transmit and one for receive. Both systems are based on technology originally built for government use and now being adapted to commercial service. And both offer much higher spectral efficiency to offer more bandwidth at lower costs.
The Panasonic/Boeing solution, however, is electronically steered instead of mechanically, and Panasonic says it’s smaller in profile. Bruner very much understands the need to keep operating costs down as much as capital expenses for the airlines, “Only purpose is to save fuel for the airlines.” This system is a significant step forward in the effort.