Intelsat is confident that its electronically steered antenna (ESA)-based multi-orbit satellite-based inflight connectivity solution can support broadband Internet on virtually all airline routes and in extreme climates following a series of flight tests aboard its CRJ700 testbed aircraft, including to the Arctic Circle. The new IFC solution, which has already been selected by several airlines including Alaska, American and Air Canada, uses both Intelsat’s geostationary (GEO) satellite capacity and Eutelsat OneWeb’s new Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satcom service.
Kicking things off in early 2023, Intelsat brought its CRJ700 testbed aircraft to Puerto Rico to test how the ESA performs in extreme heat. The ESA is entirely passively cooled, meaning that when the airplane moves, the ESA cools down considerably. As such, on-the-ground tests in a hot climate like Puerto Rico were particularly important for the satellite operator and aero ISP. Intelsat “let it bake in the sun” and then flew the jet, company head of commercial aviation Dave Bijur explained during a media briefing this morning.
With sensors on the antenna, the fuselage, and inside the aperture measuring heat, Bijur said: “The truth is we’ve not seen that be a problem; up to 85 Celsius, not a problem. So, that’s pretty hot.” If, however, heat is excessive, the ESA can fall into a degraded mode to lower the power draw. In these instances, sacrificing a percentage of throughput “is not very much of a problem because passengers keep their phones on,” suggested Bijur.
We’ve not seen any heat issues here that concern us. Obviously, you cannot get through [RTCA’s] DO-160 and get the STC [supplemental type certification from the FAA] if you don’t satisfy those requirements also. So, there are a lot of steps to make sure that the heat situation is okay.
As first reported by RGN Premium, Intelsat in December 2023 executed on another key test, flying the CRJ700 from Seattle to Anchorage, Alaska to demonstrate that the ESA can reliably close geostationary (GEO) satellite links in higher latitudes.
GEO satellites are parked above the equator. When an aircraft flies too far north, flat panel ESAs are generally understood to have difficulty seeing past the bulge of the earth to ‘see’ those GEO satellites, and the antenna itself can only point so far. Said more technically, the ESA can be challenged at such high scan angles. These are the well-known limitations of ESAs talking to GEO satellites, as opposed to truly global LEO constellations.
“You have other people saying that it could be a challenge to close it and I’m here to tell you that it’s not a challenge to close it because I just did it, [and saw it] with my own eyes with lots of witnesses and clients,” said Bijur, who was onboard Intelsat’s 17 December flight from Seattle to Anchorage. “We successfully operated our ESA, using GEO satellites until we passed Girdwood, Alaska, during our descent into the Anchorage International Airport. Girwood is about 45 miles south of the airport and is located at 60 degrees north”, he previously confided to RGN.
RGN today asked Bijur if there is something unique to Intelsat’s GEO satellite network enabling it to assist the ESA-using-GEO dynamic?
“[T]he network itself does have something to do with it,” he replied, explaining that if you don’t have satellites around the planet, you could wind up with a coverage issue. “So, I think one of the differentiating things for Intelsat is the fact that we fly 58 satellites and the fact that we have, not just the coverage, but coverage in all the right spots to be able to make the whole thing work.”
A day after the Seattle-Anchorage jaunt, Intelsat took the CRJ700 even further north, flying roundtrip from Anchorage to Utqiaġvik, Alaska (formerly known as Barrow, the northernmost community in the US) to showcase the ESA’s ability to talk to OneWeb’s LEO satellites to support broadband cabin connectivity on polar routes connecting Asia, North America and Europe. The polar portions of longhaul flights are presently precluded from high-speed Internet due to current-generation IFC systems’ reliance on GEO satellite transmissions.
“As the aircraft traveled due north from Anchorage into the Arctic Circle, we seamlessly connected to the OneWeb Low Earth Orbit constellation delivering 150 megabits per second inflight and on the ground in Alaska,” explained Intelsat senior vice president of engineering Pat Walsh of the CRJ700’s journey.
Though OneWeb in its current configuration has limits around capacity in any given spot beam, and they are large spot beams, it’s also true that you get into overlapping coverage with higher latitudes, a point made recently by ‘satcom guru’ Peter Lemme.
Commenting on the test flight to the Arctic Circle, Ben Griffin, VP mobility at the newly merged Eutelsat OneWeb, said in a statement, “We congratulate Intelsat on this milestone moment, made possible by OneWeb’s Low Earth Orbit constellation. This continuous connectivity across all routes and latitudes is a game changer for international airlines flying between East and West across the polar region. This historic flight validates the 5C’s of connectivity that together OneWeb and Intelsat can deliver to our airline customer namely – coverage, capacity, connection, consistency, and community.”
According to Intelsat’s Bijur, the ESA has passed the firm’s flight tests with flying colors. And, bar one final item, everything associated with the ESA hardware itself has passed qual, he said. As such, Intelsat expects to install a commercial prototype on the CRJ700 to support STC work “on or around Valentine’s Day”. By mid-March, it expects to be flying the STC configuration aboard the CRJ700. STCs for other aircraft types will be secured thereafter.
Intelsat’s ESA is based on mature electronically scanned array antenna technology from Ball Aerospace, and leverages design and integration partner, Stellar Blu Solutions’ modular design. Bijur reckons that “100 to 150 aircraft” of Intelsat’s several-hundred aircraft backlog will be installed with the ESA by the end of 2024.
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Featured image credited to Stellar Blu Solutions