Thales adopts lego mentality for FlytLINK critical comms solution

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Connectivity is changing the game for passengers and crew in the cabin, but it is also ushering in a new era of functionality on the flight deck. Inmarsat and Iridium currently support cockpit communications and safety services via legacy satellite constellations, but secure, higher-speed IP connectivity is at hand as Inmarsat rolls out SwiftBroadband-Safety (SB-S) and Iridium builds out its NEXT network in anticipation of the launch of its next generation Certus service.

Less obvious, perhaps, is the work going on behind the scenes by hardware manufacturers in support of these new services. Thales, for instance, has spent a lot of time on the industrial design aspects of its new FlytLINK product, which will operate using Certus, and provide highly reliable, mobile and essential voice, text and web communications.

Safety first

As a result of this work, “one of the features that our product has that our competitors may not is what we call the hybrid option and so we’ll actually have two modems in our hybrid variant that allows safety services to be handled by one modem and non-safety to be handled by another and what that allows is complete separation and isolation and cyber security for our customers”, says Rob Combs, the former president of GTE Airfone, and among the founding engineers of LiveTV, which was acquired by Thales in 2014.

Both modems are housed in the same box “but the data paths are completely isolated both electrically and physically isolated”, he explains.

But this approach doesn’t just have cyber security benefits; it also ensures that Thales is not as dependent “as some of our competitors” in seeing Certus approved for safety services in the near-term because FlytLINK can ably support non-safety services until approval is secured, according to Combs, who now serves as Thales’ general manager operations, LiveAero.

“We’ve adopted what we call our ‘lego mentality’ and so the product can be integrated into safety services and fulfil all those functions but it also has the ability – and some launch customers will use it this way – to solely support connectivity, including voice, VoIP and data, that’s part of the business plan. And in general aviation, and even business aviation, this really allows a single solution so you don’t have to have an air-to-ground and a satellite system to have connectivity across your entire mission plan.”

Customers can effectively future-proof their cockpits. “And this is one of the aspects of industrial design we built into our product to protect customers from any potential regulatory or deployment delays,” says Combs.

To be clear, Thales is also offering a single-modem FlytLINK option for operators which simply want to have cockpit communications for commercial and business aircraft, plus light cabin connectivity for the latter, yet provide the option to upgrade down the road. “We will sell both in the marketplace.”

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While some industry stakeholders believe services related to classified aircraft operations should transmit over a dedicated, protected pipe, Combs is “not as hard” as some on the issue because Thales’ architecture “is flexible enough where we can configure and take a hard line so everything that comes from the electronic flight bag (EFB) or any of the real-time apps would be segregated or we can, in effect, develop VPN for highly classified or highly secure traffic and then send it with non-secure traffic.”

The debate is still being had, and “we’ll see how it will shake out”, he says. “There are varying views on it, but our architecture is flexible enough that we can support just about any configuration that the market decides.”

At the recent National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) showcase in Las Vegas, Thales announced availability of FlytLINK for June 2018. At present, however, Thales is not as well-known in the business aviation and UAV markets. So the firm believes it’s “imperative” that the product be manufactured in its Melbourne, Florida facility to gain the respect of the market.

One of the benefits of being part of a multi-national corporation such as the Thales Group, says Combs, is that the Melbourne facility has access to “a phenomenal supply chain”. Supplemental type certifications (STCs) for FlytLINK will take place at the Thales facility in Southern California. “And that allows us to optimize the supply chain process and ensure high quality. One of our absolute standard bearers is that the product will be perfect out of the shoot. Customers have high expectations.”

On the linefit front, Thales is actively working customer programs so its first strategy is obtaining offerability across categories – commercial, business, rotary and UAV. The firm has been working very quietly and diligently to set up “beachheads” in all markets because Iridium Certus has “advantages and can play a significant role in all of these markets”, he says.

Combs notes that, “OEMs are preferring that third-party connectivity solutions be installed through service bulletin or similar, so that eases that burden, but we do through our distributors expect a very robust retrofit across all of the same markets.”

Big business in BizAv?

Like Thales, Iridium Communications sees business aviation as a natural fit for Certus since operators are “extremely familiar with the Iridium brand name”. Historically, Iridium meant the ability for business aircraft operators to have a phone in the cabin or ACARS in the cockpit, says Iridium director of product management Brian Pemberton. “But we’re not just that – we can be broadband to your cabin as well and continue to do the functions we’ve done before.”

Moreover, Iridium Certus will be unique in that, like its predecessor, it will be global including the poles. The service will “bring a breath of fresh air to the satellite technology ecosystem an also for customers. And also for Thales,” says Combs.

Thales works very closely with Iridium and then “you look at the almost enterprise quality of Certus, its ability to offer multiple services simultaneously over a single antenna, to have a reasonable total cost of ownership that will allow smaller operators, smaller markets and even large operators to economically increase their technology profile in the cockpit. We hear this notion of the connected cockpit all the time but in reality, the technology often comes at a very high price and is limited to only premier users. Certus is going to bring true connectivity to platforms and operators and customers that were previously completely closed out of the market,” Combs tells RGN. “One of the ways we’re helping to do that is our 700 kilobit antenna; it is about the size of a man’s fist.

“When you think about the platforms that that opens up, when you think about a legacy 700 kilobit Inmarsat antenna in size and weight and you look at what we’re able to do with leveraging the Certus technology … think about all the platforms that become accessible – helicopters, general aviation, military transport, UAV, in addition to commercial air transport aircraft. It’s not about the wiz and the bang; it’s about truly leveraging technologies that are innovative and provide real, sustainable results.”

Whilst lower-bandwidth – and even smaller profile – antennas will be available for Iridium Certus, the 700 kilobit antenna is expected to be adopted by airlines, says Combs. This sentiment was echoed recently by Iridium CEO Matt Desch, who told RGN that Certus 700 is “where I think safety services, and all kinds of stuff” will be supported. It offers “the same profile antenna or lower profile than the competitor because we don’t have the look angle they have; at a lower cost with no coverage gaps and better airtime prices. We believe that by the end of next year, and definitely into 2019, we’ll have a powerful portfolio of products to offer the industry that won’t have any peers in terms of performance.”

Dual-satcom means redundancy

Separately, as first reported by RGN, Thales is progressing in its work on a FlytLINK Duo solution to support both Inmarsat SwiftBroadband and Iridium Certus on the Boeing 777X. Combs demurred in discussing specific details about the program beyond what it has already discussed, but said Thales will “meet whatever timeline expectations there is for the 777X”

Airbus has yet to reveal if they are going the same route as Boeing with a dual satcom solution. “I think there are some competitors that would like to see that,” says Combs. He believes, however, that HF “has served its purpose and it’s time to move on”.

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