Iridium eyes more Certus partners as new transceiver work progresses

Rotation

With Certus-supported aviation terminals “on the cusp” of being ready for primetime, and the next wave of next-generation transceiver development well underway, Iridium Communications has expressed an interest in welcoming new partners to its network.

Current players

Collins Aerospace (formerly Rockwell Collins), L3 Communications and Thales were among the first Certus value added manufacturers (VAMs) selected by Iridium in aero. Cobham was also invited to bid when Iridium launched RFPs for aviation products, and in fact was selected in 2015 as one of the initial four. But in 2017, Cobham explained its reasons to RGN for initially focusing on a maritime terminal for Certus before diving into aviation. It shipped its first certified “Sailor” branded units for maritime a year later.

In 2018, Iridium added Gogo and Satcom Direct to its aero VAM roster; they are also Certus service providers in business aviation.

Historically, Iridium has produced transceivers for its VAM partners to integrate into their final configurations for each specific market. And indeed, the company developed and made available a functional ‘broadband’ transceiver to its cadre of Certus VAMs in aviation. Iridium and Thales have said they expect commercial airlines to adopt the Certus 700 service (speeds of up to 704 Kbps) and associated hardware which will transmit via the Thales Alenia Space-built Iridium NEXT constellation.

After years of working with chosen Certus VAMs, Iridium in August 2019 announced the first 10 approved “beta partners” developing small-form factor ‘midband’ devices for maritime, aviation, land-mobile, IoT and government applications based on the new Certus 9770 transceiver, which will deliver speeds ranging from 22 Kbps to 88 Kbps. With this program, Iridium aims to expand the reach of Certus to new markets, including to unmanned and autonomous drones and remotely deployed IoT devices. The company has advised investors that it expects to see Certus 9770 applications emerge starting later in 2020 and ramping into 2021.

Among the 10 beta partners working with the new transceiver are a couple of immediately recognizable names in aero, including Cobham, which is a power player in UAV satcom; and Blue Sky Network, which counts a FAA-approved autonomous distress tracking device for Boeing 737 aircraft in its portfolio of Iridium tracking products. Upon completion of beta testing, the Iridium Certus 9770 transceiver is expected to be made available to additional Iridium licensed technology and distribution partners in the first quarter of this year.

Casting the net

As Iridium develops new second and third generation Certus transceivers, however, it wants to open up development to “a wider type of net if you will”, company director & general manager – aviation Michael Hooper told RGN. “So we will invite more partners in to work with us for next generation transceiver technology. So, we’re not so restrictive or intrusive, but it does take a bit of engineering effort to build these. [W]e are opening the door for Iridium Certus platforms.” This transceiver work will likely lead to development of a small Certus-powered Go portable WiFi hotspot solution to support aircraft crew activities including real-time credit card transactions, as reported by RGN.

Rotation
But in the near-term, Thales’ FlytLINK terminal for Certus is expected to be the first available product in aviation. The hybrid solution combines Certus capabilities with Iridium’s traditional services, including cockpit safety services, which will be available with its initial release.

The French multi-national corporation, which is also a Certus service provider for aero, “has been very aggressive, showing their product at NBAA and other events for a while. [There’s] no question about their aggressiveness, and as it stands right now, they are the ones shaking up the market,” said Hooper.

Development of FlytLINK for the Boeing 777X program, specifically – branded by Honeywell for its Aspire product line for the cockpit – is “moving along very well. There certainly have been some challenges like you would expect with a new product like this. But with the current schedule with the 777X, we are certainly not the pacing item on that,” said Thales Inflyt Entertainment & Connectivity vice president connectivity solutions Craig Olson. The pacing item to which he is referring is, of course, the well-reported engine issue affecting the 777X’s schedule.

Thales is working closely with Honeywell on the 777X satcom project, but it is also providing FlytLINK “to other customers, both internal to Thales with our avionics business and in some cases we go direct as well”, noted Olson. Incidentally, Thales will exploit Certus, as well as SwiftBroadband-Safety (SB-S), when it rolls out next generation avionics with its PureFlyt flight management system. PureFlyt will support 4D trajectory management, and even a fifth dimension, aircraft weight, to enable fuel burn optimization. But it is not tied to a specific aircraft development program. Thales wanted to come out with the new FMS before new aircraft are designed and developed, management said. Thales is therefore positioned to package PureFlyt with FlytLINK as well as satcom hardware to support SB-S, should it so choose. 

Three swim lanes

Certus-powered FlytLINK is going to serve military, commercial, helicopter, business jet and commercial air transport, and as such, the product line also “is spread out in terms of having multiple options in terms of cockpit-only, cabin-only, and a combined version that is cockpit and cabin”, explained Olson.

But for the 777X specifically, Thales is focusing on the cockpit-only piece because of Boeing’s “strong interest in that piece”, he said.

Broadly, the Thales executive predicted the demand for FlytLINK “is going to be huge in the coming years and particularly as the safety services comes through … in the next couple of years”.

A move to the right

In prior public statements, Iridium was optimistic that Certus aviation solutions would be ready in 2019. “We anticipate that the first aviation products will be available prior to the Iridium NEXT satellite constellation being completely deployed,” said CEO Matt Desch in a 2017 interview with RGN.

“For Iridium Certus aviation applications, commercial service introduction is expected in 2019, after completion of inflight trials,” stated Iridium when it announced Satcom Direct as a VAM in 2018.

During Iridium’s third quarter 2018 earnings conference call, Desch said some aviation products would be introduced “in the middle of 2019” but that this growth leg wouldn’t pick up until late in 2019.

But during Iridium’s third quarter earnings conference call on 29 October 2019, Desch provided a further update, saying, “Testing of Iridium Certus aviation terminals is currently underway and we expect the first ones should be ready by mid-2020 with certified cockpit safety products to follow later in the year.”

He highlighted the complexity involved in aviation, including around the certification requirements associated with equipping aircraft. “We always expected that would be around mid-2020 to have those really starting to ramp into the market and that seems to be what they are,” said Desch. “So we really haven’t changed our forecast much due to aviation because it really wasn’t hitting in a big way until 2021 and it was not nearly as large as the maritime opportunity, at least in the near term. So that hasn’t really changed much. So I wouldn’t say we’re taking a more conservative view. We still feel very, very good— in fact aviation has always been one of the most, I don’t know, pure advantages where Iridium has over almost any other network because of our ability to cover the poles and because of the size of our antennas and because the cost of them, etc.”

Noting that Iridium didn’t complete its network until 2019, Hooper later told RGN:

…now we’ve launched products in maritime and land; aviation is on the cusp of the products going out. And the market is seeing that Iridium has delivered what they said they’d deliver, so now [for] everyone it’s like real. Certus is real and everybody wants to have that choice of a better L-band solution and we’re working towards it.

While acknowledging that Thales is expected to be first out of the gate, Hooper added, intriguingly. “But there are other players, Collins and Cobham are coming along as well, but the way it looks now is Thales is still going to be the first product [in aviation]…”

Cobham on the march?

Given Hooper’s statement, it certainly sounds as if Cobham is ramping up its Certus VAM work in aviation. The company in 2017 told RGN that, despite its decision to initially focus on maritime products for Certus, it hoped to secure a supplier position in the 2020 timeframe on the 777X for a dual satcom solution, with radios for Iridium and Inmarsat SwiftBroadband (Thales also announced its FlytLINK “Duo” work with Iridium and Inmarsat for the 777X in the same year). And in a 2018 press release announcing Gogo as a new Certus VAM, Iridium referred to Cobham as a “current” Iridium Certus VAM for aviation.

Hooper said only that we can expect “some surprises” regarding the companies that follow Thales’ rollout, and time-to-market, adding that he is excited about what 2020 will bring “for a new choice for operators out there”.

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