Alpha, Charlie, Tango, Zulu, do you read me? The quaint jargon we associate with aircraft pilots in high-stakes action movies originally came about because radio communications in the air are of notoriously poor quality. Now that satellite communications and IP-based services are readily available and offer unprecedented audio clarity, they are about to make this quaint jargon a thing of the past and usher in a whole host of game-changing new applications.
Inadequate technologies for critical in-flight communications
Today, all aircraft are equipped with radios — without them, they would be completely cut off from the rest of the world. Yet with these technologies, which rely on terrestrial infrastructure, airlines, planemakers, pilots and air traffic controllers all have to contend with a number of major drawbacks. First, the broadband data rates needed for advanced applications are simply not available, so it’s basically voice and limited data only. Connections can be lost due to the range limitations of ground-based infrastructure, especially over ocean regions where coverage is poor or inexistent. Natural obstacles like mountains and vegetation can also cause problems, especially during low-level flight. And last but not least, aeronautical radio equipment tends to be heavy, bulky and costly.
Some broadband satcom systems are already being used on aircraft for the cockpit. But existing services based on geostationary satellite constellations in orbit at very high altitudes — have their own limitations. They don’t offer complete global coverage: communications become impossible at extreme northerly and southerly latitudes, so routes anywhere near the poles are out of range, as is much of Canada, Norway, Sweden and Finland. It takes at least half a second for the signal to cover the 70,000-kilometre round trip to the satellite and back, resulting in a noticeable time lag when speaking. And even the latest equipment is so big and heavy that only larger aircraft, helicopters and UAVs can be equipped.
FlytLINK and the low orbit advantage
The FlytLINK solution from Thales is small, lightweight and extremely capable. It will bring dependable, seamlessly smooth high-data-rate communications right into the cockpit at any point on the globe. What's the secret? The Iridium constellation of low-earth orbit satellites. Thales Alenia Space is the prime contractor for the Iridium NEXT constellation of 66 interconnected satellites at a low altitude of 780 kilometers, providing unprecedented global connectivity for communications on the move—people, ships, land vehicles and aircraft.
These satellites are much closer to the planet than their geostationary cousins, so sending and receiving a signal doesn’t require much time, eliminating the time lag. In addition, no heavy, high-powered equipment is needed.
Weighing just 7 kilograms, FlytLINK is easy to install on any aircraft. Importantly, it’s the first system to deliver fast broadband connectivity to the cockpit, anywhere in the world, with speeds approaching 1 Mbit/s (700 kbps download, 350 kbps upload). This meets all regulatory requirements for communications with the air traffic control authorities. It also supports other types of data communications with the ground, and even Internet connectivity for cabin passengers.
Gone are the days when pilots had to shout into a microphone, or use strange coded language. With FlytLINK, communications are crystal clear, seamless and dependable in any geographic position and any weather conditions.
The connected cockpit revolution
Airlines have two key priorities: to better manage weather risk and optimise flight operations so that planes spend the least amount of time on the ground. With FlytLINK, pilots will be able to receive much more detailed and accurate in-flight weather information than ever before. Currently, they’re simply notified of forecasts before take-off, then receive limited updates when they're in the air. If there’s weather ahead, pilots have to decide whether to request authorisation to modify their flight plan, based solely on the limited information available.
Meanwhile, maintenance teams on the ground can monitor onboard equipment status during the flight, no longer having to wait until the plane is on the tarmac to retrieve and analyse the data collected by the different embedded sensors. The idea of that vital replacement part waiting at the end of the runway is no longer science fiction!
For the armed forces, the technology also offers new ways to gain a strategic advantage. Combat helicopters, for example, often fly at low altitude, where terrain features can interfere with communications on critical missions. FlytLINK keeps them connected and provides the bandwidth and data speeds they need. And because the Iridium satellites are typically acquired close to the horizon, the signal isn’t disrupted by the spinning rotor blades either.
In many parts of the world, emergency medical services use helicopters or light aircraft to evacuate the sick or injured. With FlytLINK, they can transmit medical data while en route to the hospital, improving outcomes for patients.
As well as meeting traditional communication requirements, FlytLINK offers a whole array of new possibilities because of its robust data transmission capabilities. Thales is already working with customers on a host of applications that are going to make a real difference to people’s lives in the years ahead!