Like “Big Data” and the “Internet of Things,” the “Connected Aircraft” has moved from a concept, to a buzzword, to a here-and-now reality. Nowhere was that more evident than at this year’s Global Connected Aircraft Summit where airlines, satellite operators and everyone in-between came together to discuss what connectivity means for multiple industries. While much was covered during the three-day event, a few prevailing themes came to light. These are our key takeaways from this year’s event.
1. Satellite Designs have IFC in Mind
Satellite operators are increasingly factoring in aeronautical bandwidth demand as they design next generation spacecraft. For many operators, aviation is a fast growing vertical, making satcom demand more of a priority. ViaSat, for example, had a much greater focus on residential satellite broadband before gaining considerable traction in In-Flight Connectivity (IFC). Now ViaSat 2, slated to launch in 2016, very much factors in IFC with a footprint designed to ensure seamless connectivity across popular North Atlantic flight paths between North America and Europe.
Meherwan Polad, senior director of business development for mobile broadband systems at ViaSat, cautioned that IFC alone is not reason enough for a full satellite — at least not yet, perhaps — but that it is not a matter of contention between aviation and other verticals. “The airlines are benefiting from being able to share with many users on the ground to get economies of scale,” he said.
Aviation is expected to remain a strong source of demand for satellite capacity. As such, future spacecraft are likely to have payloads designed to attract more aeronautical customers.
“There are advantages to be gleaned in all areas. Ku wide-beam coverages make a lot of sense for lesser-trafficked areas of the world where the Ka-band high density spot beams make a lot of sense for areas where there is a huge amount of traffic … combining both is the best route, really, in addition to looking at it from the perspective of least cost to take advantage of the solution for where you happen to be at the time,” said Vince Walisko, SVP of engineering and operations at Eutelsat America.
2. Dual-Band Antennas Could End the Ku vs. Ka Debate
In the well-versed debate between Ku and Ka band, the prevailing theme is not either or but both. Dual-band antennas can leverage the strengths of each frequency — greater coverage for Ku, and greater spectrum in Ka — so that passengers get what they actually care about: Wi-Fi.
“We have very much an open architecture system. We don’t prescribe what antennas you can and can’t use on our network,” said James Collett, director of mobility services product management at Intelsat.
Several operators have teamed up with antenna manufacturers to create solutions that meet the needs of the aviation sector. This includes both cutting-edge, mechanically steered, and phased-array antennas, but still, the desire to break free from the artificial confines of just one-band remains.
“As far as terminals go, one development I’m looking for more of is the dual band Ku-Ka because I think there is a place for both,” said Walisko.
The maritime sector has seen some notable dual-band or multiband announcements such as Harris Caprock’s Harris CapRock One solution and MTN Communication’s Skytech Ku-/Ka-band antenna. ViaSat is also working on a Ku-/Ka-band antenna for aviation that it hopes to have flying in early 2016, and it would not be a surprise for more companies to follow.
3. Free Wi-Fi is not Really a Thing Yet
With the exception of ViaSat’s customer JetBlue, large-scale free Wi-Fi seems to be a less favored business model for passenger IFC. Most service providers, in evaluating the strategies played out by airline customers, noted that while making Wi-Fi free does increase usage, there are technological limits to letting passengers do whatever they want. While no one was willing to say what model would dominate the market a few years from now as most plans are still fairly nascent, a tiered model did emerge as the crowd favorite.
“We still have an opportunity within the industry to satisfy a couple of different requirements,” said Greg Montevideo, senior director of global communications services at Panasonic Avionics. “We can give connectivity free for some passengers who want to be able to try to understand this thing and do some texting, and I think we can provide value-added services — whether it’s streaming or other things — for the right price to those who want to do more. I believe that’s the way industry will go for a while. We will see some offering it for free for limited amounts of data and then for a more rich experience there will be a pay-per-use kind of model.”
4. Fear Muddies Cybersecurity Strategies
At the confluence of IT and aviation, fear is playing an unfortunately influential role in when it comes to cybersecurity on aircraft. Some sources are providing straightforward information, such as the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) reports on the unreliability of security for Air Traffic Control (ATC). However, the shots across the bow by “ethical hackers” are having a persuasive impact on cybersecurity with a more nebulous result.
“If you want to manipulate someone into buying something, you scare them. And, unfortunately, in the cybersecurity community you see [Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt] FUD too frequently. People come up with incredibly scary scenarios, they twist the truth, they lie to sell you something,” said moderator Bob Gourley of Cognitio, who has an extensive background in cyber security and is currently publisher of both CTOvision.com and ThreatBrief.com.
5. Still, Cybersecurity Risks Need to be Met on the Front End
Aviation and telecommunications partners encouraged each other to pursue cybersecurity in tandem with the onset of connectivity. Because IFC is growing so quickly in popularity, the risk looms that setting cybersecurity goals to the side could result in setbacks.
“Technology moves so fast, security sometimes gets left behind because you’re trying to get to the consumer, you’re trying to give them what they want, and sometimes when you try to address security after the fact you add complexity to the mix,” said Vinit Duggal, director and chief information security officer at Intelsat.
Strategies for cybersecurity in aviation included, for instance, compartmentalizing passenger IFC from other systems to limit the risk of larger cybersecurity breaches. IFC brings unique security challenges due to the incredible level of mobility compared to other networks. Still, while it was easy to admit that cybersecurity is daunting, panelists agreed that the challenge is not insurmountable and rather, must be approached head on.
“Attacks against the aviation industry are also occurring on a daily basis and we can expect that, as the connected aircraft grows in popularity, there will be more and more and more attacks there too,” said Gourley.
6. IoT in Aviation is Amazing
Howard Charney, senior vice president at Cisco, emphasized that, when it comes to the Internet of Everything (IoT), disruption is the new normal. Cisco estimates that around 21 billion devices will be connected by 2018, with a value estimated at more than $19 trillion over the next 10 years — and the speed at which this is occurring is only accelerating.
Charney highlighted Copenhagen Airport as one of the most efficient, technologically advanced airports in Europe thanks to the rapid infusion of IoT devices. Greeters, for instance, used Google Glass to help passengers find their way during trials earlier this year. Lost passengers can find their way on a 3-D map tagged with relevant location information, and a free Copenhagen Airport app can triangulate their position via hundreds of Wi-Fi access points in terminals.
Charney’s top principle for disruption: innovation is more than ideation. Data is everywhere, he said, but insights are scarce, and real-time data is too late. Plus, if it does not work on mobile, then it does not work, period. Keeping these principles in mind while incorporating more connected devices could be a boon for the aviation industry.
7. Telemedicine is a Top Want
Connectivity is permeating aircraft, but some links that would make life-saving advances a reality are missing. United Airlines Senior Vice President of Corporate Safety Michael Quiello said that, while Wi-Fi is present on aircraft, the telemedicine solutions evaluated so far have all been too costly compared to the current amount spent on diverting flights for medical emergencies. The airline, along with others, is looking for a less costly solution that leverages existing cabin-based Wi-Fi links to increase communication with ground-based medical personnel to provide them with information about the passenger’s vital signs. In a medical emergency, this could determine whether or not a flight diversion needs to occur.
“We have a Wi-Fi solution onboard right now. It would be great if we could have a link from the back of the cabin directly to the facility itself, whether that’s via satcom or Wi-Fi connection. Having a dedicated pipe back there for a lot of things other than just passenger entertainment or Wi-Fi Internet capability would be great for us,” said Quiello.
United had roughly 140 medical diversions in 2014, equating to one almost every other day throughout the year. Quiello estimated the cost at around $20,000 each time this happened. Fuel contributes significantly to this number, and diversions can also lead to hotel bills for flight crews and passengers. Plus, the cost in frustration goes uncalculated. Telemedicine through IFC could save airlines a significant amount in time and money as well as lead to better health for everyone in the air.
8. IFE Doesn’t Cannibalize IFC, and Vice Versa
Even with IFC growing steadily in popularity, In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) is not expected to see a downturn anytime soon.
“We have seen no evidence that connectivity reduces take rate of IFE in any sort of way,” said Duc Huy Tran, vice president of strategy and marketing of IFEC at Thales Live TV. “You have to look at the operations of the airlines. The rule of thumb is, if you can’t finish a movie: don’t have IFE. But if you fly three hours or more, I think passengers will require IFE [and] they will require connectivity; it has never been an if-or question. It is complementary.”
In the past, Global Eagle has likewise pointed to IFE as a complementary service that boosts IFEC overall. Tran said he expects IFC will be universal in five years time, and that IFE will continue to have a niche in that environment. VS
Juliet Van Wagenen and Woodrow Bellamy III contributed to this story.