Fast 5: A Growing Air-To-Ground Network

Ryan Stone SmartSky Networks
Ryan Stone
Credit: Credit: SmartSky Networks

Ryan Stone is co-founder, president and director of SmartSky Networks, a North Carolina-based company developing an air-to-ground communications system using a mix of 4G LTE and 5G technologies (not to be confused with C-band 5G technology used by Verizon and AT&T.) SmartSky’s network uses patented spectrum reuse, advanced beamforming technologies and 60 MHz of unlicensed band spectrum for connectivity services, enabling passengers to experience an “office-in-the-sky” environment for data transmissions to and from the aircraft. 

Stone is the former chairman, CEO and co-founder of Davinci Jets. He also served as an engineer and program manager in Duke Energy’s nuclear generation department and as a Naval Submarine Officer. He co-founded SmartSky in 2011. 

You began your career in business aviation as co-founder of what is now Davinci Jets, a private jet charter and management company. How did that play into the formation of SmartSky? 

It was from that company that we started SmartSky because our customers wanted Internet that was comparable to what they had on the ground in the air. We were so excited about everything that was coming out in the market. That was the 2008-10 time frame. I kept trying to sell it to our (charter) customers, and they kept telling us, ‘No. It’s not fast enough.’ That demand hasn’t gone away. It’s gone up.

The one thing that has changed dramatically in the last two years with COVID is that regular people who before thought video conferencing like this was a novelty now view it as a necessity, and everyone on the planet knows how to do it. They expect to be able to (have) it (on an aircraft.) That in turn has put even more pressure on us to make sure we get out there and make sure we deliver because there is increased demand. There’s a lot of demand for connectivity. When we talk to partners, every one of them says it’s usually the topmost requested upgrade. 

SmartSky has said that its air-to-ground network infrastructure would cover more than 80% of the business aviation routes in the continental U.S. by the end of 2021. Did you achieve that coverage, and could you comment on the status of your network deployment?

Yes. 2021 was a pretty big year for SmartSky across all three lines of our business. We have network, we have the shipsets and we have our application layer. On the network side, we celebrated the commercial launch of our business at NBAA in October. The network is live. It’s available for use right now. That’s pretty exciting. In June, we achieved 'feature complete' (the entire system performing to specification) for the network hardware and software and that’s progressed to where we achieved our year-end goal of covering about 80% of the continental U.S. flight hours. We’re on track for full continental U.S. coverage next quarter. On the shipset side, in July last year, we got our FCC certification on the ground-based remote radio head and then coupled with the FAA approval for our aircraft base radio, we began to stockpile inventory—so pretty important...We have inventory. 

And the third line of your business? 

The third line of our business, our applications layer, which we call Skytelligence, continues to see good commercial success and traction. We’re starting to grow the number of customers who are using it. This is both data producers and data consumers, and we’re using it to help enhance the sustainability and operational effectiveness of flying.

At NBAA, besides launching commercial service, we announced what we call our Early Arrival Program. It’s for new customers to sign up, even if there’s not an STC (supplemental type certificate) available (for your aircraft.) It’s a way for them to raise their hand and reserve their spot in line. We’ve seen a lot of interest in that program from turboprops to large business jets. 

We also have been busy. We just announced a collaboration with GE Aviation and Mosaic ATM for a project we’re doing under a NASA award for advanced air mobility and enhancing cloud-based flight management systems. It’s something that doesn’t exist today, but we’re creating and using our network to help transform what’s coming in the future.

And then, just in general, this year is all about growing our customer base and really pivoting from where we were in the past, which was the development stage, into full-blown operations.... We’re doing the first entry-into-service for some of our early customers.

During NBAA-BACE 2021 in Las Vegas, SmartSky demonstrated the ATG systems on a Cessna Citation 560XL business jet. Do you have STC approvals for other aircraft or where are you in the process? 

We sure do. We’ve got STCs covering several thousand aircraft tails over a bunch of different models and more on the way. The ones we have right now are the Citation Excel, the XLS, The Gulfstream G450, Gulfstream 550, the GIV, the GV, the Challenger 601, 604, 605, 650, the Embraer 135, 145. There are more projects on the way, so if we don’t have it yet, we will have it soon. 

Flying Colours will act as a sales and installation facility for SmartSky’s system, with installations available in Petersborough, Ontario, and St. Louis, Missouri. Some of the other larger MROs that will do the installation include Duncan Aviation, StandardAero, Pentastar, West Star and ProStar. There are more in the queue that we either have a deal with or are about to. On the service side, we’ve got value-added resellers, Honeywell and Avionica.

What is your biggest challenge going forward? 

One that gets talked about a lot is supply chain. Luckily, we had been stockpiling inventory. We do have sufficient supply to meet what we forecast to be the market demand for the product this coming year. So, I’m not worried about that. Fundamentally, (the biggest challenge) is a mindset shift. Right now, when you board an airplane that has any legacy system, you have basically been conditioned. You board the plane and lower your expectations on what you could do.

Our challenge is getting more people to firsthand experience what our system is like. You may remember the first time you made a cell phone call from a car. It was life-changing and ‘Hey. Guess where I’m calling from?’ The exact thing happens when you get Enterprise in the Sky connectivity with us. The first time you get on board and you just start doing work—it usually starts with the video call. You just light up. It’s getting more people to experience that firsthand.