Mention aircraft broadband connectivity andthe first thought is Wi-Fi access for passengers. But engineers are already looking beyond updating Facebook andstreaming YouTube inflight, toward machine-to-machine communications—the ability for aircraft to talk to aircraft and airborne systems to ground systems automatically, to share data, diagnose issues and make decisions.

Long discussed and anticipated, the vision of the connected aircraft is becoming concrete due to the confluence of three wider technology trends: increasing computer power, more storage capacity and expanding communications bandwidth. The latest generation of aircraft generate and store vast amounts of data and now the broadband connection is becoming available to make new uses of that data possible.

Honeywell is developing the avionics for Inmarsat’s new generation of Global Xpress mobile broadband communications satellites. With a product portfolio ranging from actuators to engines, the company also is planning a series of demonstrations to show how that high-speed pipe can be used to provide new services to the flight crew, manufacturers and maintainers of aircraft systems.

Global Xpress will comprise three Boeing-built Inmarsat-5 satellites operating in Ka-band and providing data rates far faster than the L-band services now provided to aviation by Inmarsat. Competing operators of Ka-band satellites such as ViaSat are also targeting aviation users and exploring beyond the passenger communications market.

To show what will be possible once the aircraft is connected, planned demonstrations include sending auxiliary power unit (APU) and brake usage data to the ground for analysis, and sharing weather-radar data between aircraft to improve pilot situational awareness. The company also is talking to suppliers about the sensors that could be put on their products to provide data in real time.

Honeywell completed the critical design review on the Global Xpress avionics in January and will begin qualification testing this month. The first Inmarsat-5 was launched last December. “We will begin running ground tests connecting with the satellite in the summer, and in the fall move into flight tests on a Honeywell aircraft,” says Jack Jacobs, vice president of marketing for safety and information systems. “We will do tests with an airline customer in the same timeframe.”

The network of three Inmarsat-5s is scheduled to be operational by the end of the first quarter of 2015. “We will not go live till then,” he says. In addition to being the exclusive producer of the avionics, Honeywell will be the master reseller of Global Xpress service to business and general aviation. Onboard Wi-Fi providers GoGo and OnAir will sell the service into the commercial air transport market.

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Honeywell will supply the Ka-band antenna and its electronics, modem box and interface to the cabin network, whether wired or wireless. Two antenna types are being developed, both mechanically steered—a skin-mounted canoe about 3 ft. in length for the air transport market and a tail-top system with a 12-in. parabolic dish for business jets and smaller aircraft.

The company already provides the avionics for Inmarsat’s L-band aeronautical satcom services, including Swift64 and SwiftBroadband, and expects these systems to continue in use alongside Global Xpress. The Inmarsat-4 satellites providing L-band services, now augmented by Europe’s Alphasat, are scheduled to be operational until 2023 and then to be replaced by a planned Inmarsat-6 family.

Jacobs expects the L-band systems to stay on the aircraft and shift to providing cockpit services as Global Xpress broadband is installed for the cabin. L-band is certified for safety and operational services via the aircraft communication addressing and reporting system. This includes Swift64, with approval for SwiftBroadband underway. “Ka-band will not be certified for safety services. They will still work together,” he says.

Entering a high-throughput market now served by a mix of Ku-band satellites, Jacobs says Global Xpress is the only system offering guaranteed minimum speeds and global coverage from a single operator. Inmarsat has not published its speed guarantees yet, but advertises up to 49 mbps to and 5 mbps from the aircraft, which it compares with “typical” Ku-band speeds of around 1 mbps and up to 432 kbps for SwiftBroadband.

The main competition for passenger broadband is expected to come from Panasonic Avionics, using Intelsat’s new generation of EpicNG high-throughput Ku-band satellites, which the operator says will provide up to 80 mbps per aircraft within spot beams covering heavily traveled routes. 

ViaSat has supplied Ku-band service to aircraft for more than a decade, but moved into Ka-band with the launch of its ViaSat-1 satellite in 2011. In September the company launched its Exede Internet service to aircraft, now operational with JetBlue and United Airlines and capable of delivering 12 mbps to each seat. Although ViaSat-1 covers only the continental U.S., the company has teamed with Eutelsat to offer a similar service through the European operator’s Ka-Sat.

Scheduled for launch in 2016, the ViaSat-2 satellite will expand the company’s Ka-band coverage south into Mexico and the Caribbean, north into Canada and across the heavily traveled North Atlantic routes. “We are regional today, with a stronghold in the U.S., but we plan to transition to Ka-band globally,” says Dan Buchman, director of mobile broadband. In March, El Al Israel Airlines was announced as the first customer in Europe for Exede Internet service via Ka-Sat.

At 140 gbps, ViaSat-1 provides a cost per bit at least 10 times cheaper than Ku-band, he says. Although the focus is passenger connectivity, ViaSat is talking to aircraft, engine and systems suppliers about the potential to use its
Ka-band system for data downlinking. “We have talked to engine manufacturers and OEMs and they are very keen. Now they are sure there is a system out there with real speed,” he says. “It’s been talked about before, but no one could figure out the right system and right data. Now everything is lined up.”

For Inmarsat users, the extent to which Ka-band replaces SwiftBroadband will vary by segment. “Big airliners with a lot of passengers needing a lot of bandwidth will go to Global Xpress and if they have SwiftBroadband will use it for the cockpit,” he says. “Smaller aircraft may keep SwiftBroadband.” Antennas for the L-band systems are fairly small and Honeywell is developing a half-size version of the “fairly large” SwiftBroadband avionics for cockpit use.

Jacobs sees three reasons why connecting the aircraft makes sense now. First is the falling cost per bit. “We could have sent this data in the past, but it would have been expensive. Global Xpress helps with the cost per bit,” he says. Second is processing power, both to the crunch the data on the aircraft before sending it and to mine the data on the ground looking for trends. Third is the public’s appetite to be connected all the time, says Jacobs, pointing to a Honeywell survey that showed some passengers would give up seat recline, leg room and even a trip to the toilet in return for Wi-Fi. 

The first of Honeywell’s three demos to show the potential of the connected aircraft is the Smart APU. This involves downlinking inflight the existing health-and-usage data normally downloaded post-flight and used to schedule maintenance and bill customers under per-flight-hour contracts. “We have run a first prototype over a wireless link. The demo does not need the Global Xpress high-speed pipe,” says Jacobs. “We will run the fight test this year.”

The second demo is Smart Brake, and involves using data already available on the aircraft to better predict individual brake wear. “The data is already on the aircraft in a different form. It is a matter of how we extract it from the sensors we already have,” he says. Work is just getting started and ground demos are planned for early next year, before fight tests begin. “Probably it will not need Global Xpress, so we would look at using L-band [satcom].”

Third is the “connected weather” demo. “The theory is you have a weather radar on the aircraft that sees 160 miles ahead to detect hail, lightning and turbulence. The result is a dataset the pilot looks at to make a decision,” Jacobs says. “Now if we send that data in real time to aircraft flying behind, each aircraft becomes a weather node.” Honeywell plans to team with a weather provider to offer the service.

As airlines move passenger communications to Global Xpress, more capacity will become available on the L-band systems already installed “so we hope to fill that up with these types of applications,” Jacobs says. We have more than 60 different ideas in the pipeline, he adds. “We decided these three were worthy of going to the next step.”