Iridium’s work to ensure its new Certus global satcom service is validated for aircraft safety communications is progressing, though the timeline for approval has moved to the right due to the impact on industry of the COVID-19 crisis. The satellite operator, whose NEXT satellite network supports Certus, is now eyeing FANS flight trials of Certus by the end of next year or early 2023 in order to obtain the necessary data to receive final clearance from the US Federal Aviation Administration.
“We are probably 30-40% of the way through that process at the moment,” Iridium VP & GM of IoT and Aviation Tim Last told Runway Girl Network during the recent Satellite 2021 conference and exhibition at the National Harbor in Maryland.
“The most significant part has been the regulatory approvals which was a lot of industry discussion in RTCA and EUROCAE working groups about getting Iridium Certus approved for safety. Good news is we already had a service approved for our first generation narrowband product which has been in the market for a while. So we’ve been working with the close support of our aviation partners, the key ones who signed up as either equipment VAMs [value added manufacturers] or service partners.”
Specifically, Collins Aerospace, Honeywell, and Thales — which serve as both VAMs and service providers for Certus — plus service provider SITA have all been supporting Iridium through the process. “Big shout out to them for helping us to this stage,” said Last. “We have got RTCA approval, the PMC [program management committee at RTCA] is where we’ll start to kick off some additional activities. We need to get TSO with the FAA. And then what we are looking to do is get into those FANS trials which [are] a necessary step before you get final FAA approval to be able to put hardware on a passenger carrying jet.”
FANS, the Future Air Navigation System, enables direct data link communications between pilots and air traffic control. While the approval process for satcom to support safety services is intense, Iridium Certus will be deployed by aircraft operators before approval is granted because Certus can be used for non-safety communications prior to that. “[B]ut for FANS and ACARS over Iridium Certus we have to go through that process,” noted Last, adding:
At the moment, we expect FANS trials [to] kick off about the end of next year. Possibly Q1 2023 depending on how we progress and then we have the usual requirements of flying so many hours, so many data points and assuming all goes well we get the approval and off we go.
The Iridium executive is not yet at liberty to discuss which potential airline partners will participate in the flight trials. But in terms of Certus VAM participation “it’s likely that a combination of Collins and Honeywell will be the partners that we work with for those. You probably know that we’ve got a number of Iridium Certus products but the safety partners, Collins, Honeywell, Thales they’re really the three companies that will be in the market of commercial transport safety solutions.”
Though Iridium isn’t discussing which of the three will be first to offer a certified Certus aero product, Last confirmed to RGN that all three of them have been on-air with their aviation products. “Some of those have announced that, with both active low gain antennas and high gain antennas which covers speeds all the way from 88kbps to 704kbps. And they are making good progress.”
He continued, “Obviously the last year, as you know, has been difficult for aviation. It’s been really challenging for these companies. The good news is we are here with programs still underway, albeit somewhat delayed with Iridium Certus products. There are other programs with many of these companies that have bitten the dust.”
Meanwhile, final testing of the antenna hardware that will support Certus is starting to happen in preparation for actual on-aircraft testing, which is expected over the course of the next six months. Safety services is obviously an important part of what these programs are trying to address due to Collins, Honeywell and Thales’ interest in being linefit installed on aircraft for cockpit communications. “If you don’t have that, it is much more difficult to get into those linefit programs. You are unlikely to get the cockpit communications side of it,” noted Last.
“But in addition, all of these companies are targeting other non-safety applications. Or other non-safety use cases even that involve just data communications in the aircraft without that cockpit safety element. They’ve all got strategies to do that. Most of them have been pretty clear in communicating that.”
While Iridium and some of its VAM partners in the past suggested airlines would likely adopt the Certus 700 service (with speeds of up to 704 Kbps) and associated hardware, it seems that most operators are not demanding speeds of much more than a few hundred kbps for safety services. “Now, obviously depending on what other non-safety stuff you put through that same terminal, once you start getting operational data or airframe information that tends to ramp up,” noted Last.
“I mean the MAX and the 777, they can pump an awful lot of data out of all of the telemetry in those aircraft, which today is still often just offboarded when they land and so I think you will see some of those start to put more pressure but honestly they will go for K-band systems that are not safety approved. They’ll take advantage of the higher speed, lower price back of the cabin inflight connectivity offers them. You’ll see the safety domain within those aircraft I think probably live within that 200-350 kbps range. Even our partners that are looking to offer safety services initially are targeting 200-350 kbps for their initial launches because they think that’s a good fit, they think it works and it meets most of the need.”
To ensure redundancy as industry looks to reduce HF radios, airframers have been gravitating towards dual-dissimilar satcom solutions, with the Boeing 777X being a prominent example. Given that the 777X program is delayed, RGN asked Last if he thinks Iridium’s timeline for safety services approval of Certus will mesh with Boeing’s latest delivery schedule.
“Well we hope so,” he replied. “Obviously we don’t wish any delays and problems in the aviation industry but clearly for us, a slowdown of some of those programs has given us and our partners potentially the opportunity to still meet the need and come in with linefit programs that work. Yes 777X, yes 737 for some of the routes that they need it and yes Airbus. But also other guys. Dassault, Bombardier, Textron are all companies that are looking at Iridium solutions with an effort to equip them into various different airframes.”
Beyond Collins, Honeywell and Thales and their work to offer safety services-approved satcom kit, a variety of other companies are bringing Certus satcom solutions to the aero market, including Skytrac, Blue Sky Network, and Navicom in Japan.
“We’ve got four or five others that have not yet been announced that are either in negotiation or signed that I can’t tell you … but those are new Iridium Certus providers,” revealed Last. “They’re unlikely to be competing heavily in safety but they will be in other markets. So for rotorcraft, MILGOV and UAV, which is really exciting for us that we are seeing.
“I went to the AUVSI UAV show in Atlanta a few weeks back. It’s like the wild west, the explosion of UAV applications, airframes and the use cases that people are now beginning to dream about for UAV. Five years ago the UAV market was just emerging and dominated by low cost hobbyists and professionals, and then the MILGOV sector. In the middle, there is now this explosion of use cases and ideas and creative things that people can do across a wide range of Industrial use cases.”
Recently, UK operator Flylogix became the first customer to use Iridium Certus on a UAV payload. The company integrated Iridium’s Certus 100 product into its ‘beyond the horizon’ remote missions which are piloted from the shore and monitored centrally with real-time data and insight.
“They have developed a unique methane monitoring application enabled by medium range UAV operations that can substantially lower the cost of this for oil & gas operators around the world. And with Iridium’s help they are not limited by location or distance. So that’s something we’re really excited about,” said Last.
“With a wide range of speeds, size, weight and power on our network, everything from 20 kbps to a couple hundred kbps, we can support a wide variety of airframes and operations in the UAV sector. You can’t put 10-20 lbs of avionics for satcom into [a] relatively modest UAV, you will lower its range, you will increase its fuel requirements and you may not even get off the ground. But that market has got such potential. We are really excited about what Iridium Certus can offer for that market.”
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Featured image credited to istock.com/Rathke