Wideband, digital HF a go for the cockpit, says Collins Aerospace

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Collins Aerospace is pursuing a wideband, digital HF communications modernization program that includes new ground systems as well as airborne equipment for operators.

When it was known as Rockwell Collins, the company demonstrated nextgen HF while under contract to the US Air Force Research Laboratory (a 2016 press release can be accessed here). But during the last Federal Aviation Administration PARC meeting, it proposed wideband, digital HF for the commercial airline sector.

Confirming to Runway Girl Network that it is definitely moving forward with this project, Collins vice president, business development & strategy Joel Otto says, “The wideband HF system is being designed to meet FANS communications requirements and digital HF voice communications with improved audio quality and ease-of-use over legacy HF.

“Additionally, this new HF will include multi-channel capability, allowing operators to accomplish long range voice and data communications simultaneously with one unit, significantly reducing the overall size, weight and power of the system.”

Collins obviously already supports cockpit communications via satcom, VHF, and legacy HF data link. Though it competes with SITAONAIR for airline business, Collins is the only service provider that, today, does HF, which is seen as somewhat of a dinosaur.

Does the UTC-owned company take a position on the push within industry for satcom to serve as primary for long range communications on long-haul aircraft, and HF as backup (as recently detailed by satellite operators Iridium and Inmarsat)? In short, would Collins be satisfied for its wideband, digital HF system to ultimately be considered, effectively, secondary?

Otto views digital HF as more complimentary to satcom than that, and believes link diversity remains important, telling RGN via email:

The Collins Aerospace position is that aircraft that need long range communications should be equipped with a satellite based communications system and the next generation wideband HF system. This combined equipage would be ideal for a link diverse communication solution to guarantee long range communication in almost any environment, everywhere in the world.

SATCOM and HF can work together, simultaneously, in a complimentary fashion to provide robust and efficient over-the-horizon communications.

Link diversity is important for two fundamental reasons; first, it provides spectrum redundancy against atmospheric and ionospheric disruptions that can degrade/interrupt services. Second, there are regions of the world that do not support both HF and SATCOM safety services. Airborne equipage must accommodate these ground based control center equipage and coverage variations.

Otto did not share the financials around Collins’ planned upgrade of the HF ground and airborne equipment. But the firm’s move to modernize HF for airlines is timely indeed, as the FAA is readying to update its language concerning long range communications, which will open the door to dual satcom solutions, and may ultimately prompt some operators to consider ditching HF. The 777X is expected to offer Inmarsat SwiftBroadband-Safety and Iridium Certus, in addition to an HF radio.

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Swiftbroadband Safety and Iridium Certus are viewed by Collins as “mid-range bandwidth solutions” which will support cockpit integration in the shorter term. Longer term, however, the aerospace giant anticipates an even greater diversity of pipes on the flight deck, especially as the push for autonomous flight gains support.

“Connected solutions are an integral part of our vision for the ‘cockpit of the future’ and beyond to the ‘airplane of the future’. We expect these solutions to use a variety of communications means ranging from traditional ACARS to mid-range bandwidth satellite connections to high bandwidth satellite connections. The specific communication means will need to be selected based on the safety, security, availability, and performance needs of the application that uses it,” explains Otto.

“Our future cockpit solutions will have to work across all types of broadband connectivity means – cellular, Wifi, AeroMax, GEO Ku/Ka, LEO Ku/Ka – in order for us to allow customers to select the right service offerings for their operations. However, integration with certified avionics/flight deck systems present a high hurdle for these broadband communications channels to achieve before they can be considered for applications beyond cabin or flight deck EFB and passenger service/entertainment applications.” (On the passenger connectivity front, Collins is now supporting Inmarsat GX service on a Norwegian Boeing 787-9.)

As and when the aviation industry moves to enable partially and fully autonomous flights, Collins sees itself as “uniquely positioned to provide nearly all the components to enable that breakthrough for both commercial and military applications”, says the Collins executive.

“Collins Aerospace is at the forefront of intelligent automation with our autopilot controls, flight management systems, data links, flight controls and sensors, navigation and communications systems. We’re also doing extensive research with NASA on its UAS Traffic Management Program to enable the safe integration of UAVs in commercial airspace.” The latter work is particularly timely, given the recent drone scares at airports, notably London Heathrow and Gatwick.

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