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GCA Summit: The Pulse of the Connected Aircraft Ecosystem

The 2016 Global Connected Aircraft Summit in Hollywood, California demonstrated the continued growth and expansion of all of the different aspects of the avionics, satellite service and commercial air transport entities that are making connected aircraft operations a reality.

The 2016 Global Connected Aircraft Summit (GCAS) proved to be the pulse of the entire connected aircraft ecosystem. A total of 37 expert speakers from seven different In-flight Connectivity (IFC) service providers, seven avionics and aircraft component manufacturers, 11 airlines, the world’s two largest airframe manufacturers — Airbus and Boeing — as well as the French National Space Center (CNES) presented case studies on existing challenges, progress and future possibilities for connected aircraft operations. Expanding bandwidth, new approaches to aircraft cyber security, cost of service provision and harnessing meaningful information from large swaths of aircraft data were central themes throughout the three-day conference.

The Connected Aircraft: What do Airlines Want?

The connected aircraft need most commonly expressed by the majority of the airline speakers at GCAS 2016 was a desire for more cost-effective and reliable methods for performing aircraft health analysis and predictive maintenance.

Chris Bigwood, manager of innovation programs, design, engineering and innovation for Etihad Airways, during his panel discussion on “What Airlines Want and How Industry Can Provide it” said that, in reality, his airline currently does not have the network and onboard technology capable of allowing them to transmit operational aircraft data to their aircraft maintenance personnel.

“I’m from a maintenance background and we’ve been waiting for connectivity to get more mature so that we can see more of the maintenance data off of aircraft earlier. There’s a huge amount of data ready to come down to the Ku/Ka pipe that hasn’t been sent. We want to get a full idea of what we need to do once [the aircraft] is on the ground,” said Bigwood.

What attendees quickly learned, though, is that an airlines’ connected aircraft desires are largely influenced by their specific operations and the types of hardware and applications they are integrating into their fleet of aircraft.

“The term ‘connected aircraft’ might be a little bit over the top. We have an iPad tablet [Electronic Flight Bag] EFB and as of right now, while in-flight, it is nothing more than a disconnected template. In reality we update our device before we fly and since its disconnected there’s no chance of it having a problem once we get onto the aircraft, but it’s such a shame to not have connections to do more with the device, be it an iPad or any other tablet. Sometimes our passengers have better weather information than we do operating the aircraft,” Will Ware, team lead for EFB projects at Southwest Airlines said during the panel “EFBs and Operations: How Connectivity is Changing the Game.”

Currently Southwest has a team of 50 pilots beta testing access to their aircraft’s Wi-Fi on the ground. The carrier’s plan is to eventually move that beta testing process to an airborne phase, before starting to use the EFBs to gain access to real-time weather updates for commercial flights.

“Really what you’re looking for is a 400-mile vision of a problem that you may encounter and how to avoid that,” said Ware.
Other carriers also provided alternative perspectives on what they’re seeking from the operation of a fully connected aircraft. Joshua Kendrick, managing director of flight technical operations at FedEx, for example, said that although his airline does not carry passengers, FedEx still sees tremendous value in having all of its employees connected throughout the airplane at all times. This includes pilots flying the aircraft or maintenance personnel on the ground.

Cost is another key issue for the cargo-carrying operator. “We want to keep driving toward a lower cost solution,” said Kendrick during the panel “The Connected Ecosystem: IoT and Managing the Data.”

“For us, the conversation right now for connectivity is centered around which applications we can put together; what can we make happen, now that we have it? We almost want to reverse the conversation and say: If the connectivity was cheap enough, what could we do with it? We have the same hurdles that a lot of the passenger service has, which is: Do I want to pay additional cost for additional service?”

Technology: What’s Available and What’s on the Horizon?
GCAS also provided a forum for the industry to learn about new connected aircraft technologies, service models and concepts coming on the horizon, as well as resolve challenges and questions associated with technology that is currently available today.

One topic that emerged early in the conference and was discussed on several different panel discussions was the question of the future viability of Air-to-Ground (ATG)-based IFC service.

When asked whether or not ATG has a future in the connected aircraft ecosystem, Dave Bijur, regional president of the Americas region for Gogo’s business airline group, said during an industry roundtable discussion that the answer comes down to capacity and economics, not technology.

“I think that airlines are interested in cost-effective, high-performance bandwidth solutions. Do they really care whether it’s an air-to-ground or satellite system? I do think there’s a future for ATG, and I think the performance of the satellite systems are going to put a lot of pressure on them. For ATG, the capacity has to be there,” said Bijur, referring to the spectrum size issue that has largely impacted Gogo’s ability to deploy new generations of its ATG product that can compete with competitors’ satellite-based offerings. Earlier this year, in a meeting between representatives for Gogo and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chair Tom Wheeler that was made public by the FCC, Gogo urged the Commission to allocate and auction spectrum for the proposed 14 GHz air-ground mobile broadband service. The request from Gogo stems from a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) originally issued by the FCC in 2013 seeking to establish a new air to ground mobile broadband service to increase the availability of in-flight internet for commercial and government aircraft. The service would use spectrum within the 14 to 14.5 GHz band, with the FCC proposing a competitive auction to license it through a 500 MHz block or two 250 MHz blocks. That auction still has not come to fruition, as Gogo’s latest ATG offering, ATG-4, is still using the original 3 MHz of spectrum it obtained 10 years ago, although the company has announced plans to introduce Gogo Biz 4G for business aircraft by early 2017. Now, Gogo customers such as Aeromexico and Delta have moved on to their next generation satellite-based offering, 2Ku, launched in April of this year.

“I think 14 GHz is a great option; I don’t think its the only one. The performance we’re getting out of 2Ku is phenomenal. It’s going to come down to economics, it’s not going to come down to anything other than that,” said Bijur. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chair Tom Wheeler that was made public by the FCC, Gogo urged the Commission to allocate and auction spectrum for the proposed 14 GHz air-ground mobile broadband service. The request from Gogo stems from a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) originally issued by the FCC in 2013 seeking to establish a new air to ground mobile broadband service to increase the availability of in-flight Internet for commercial and government aircraft. The service would use spectrum within the 14 to 14.5 GHz band, with the FCC proposing a competitive auction to license it through a 500 MHz block or two 250 MHz blocks. That auction still has not come to fruition, as Gogo’s latest ATG offering, ATG-4, is still using the original 3 MHz of spectrum it obtained 10 years ago, although the company has announced plans to introduce Gogo Biz 4G for business aircraft by early 2017. Now, Gogo customers such as Aeromexico and Delta have moved on to their next generation satellite-based offering, 2Ku, launched in April of this year.

“I think 14 GHz is a great option; I don’t think its the only one. The performance we’re getting out of 2Ku is phenomenal. It’s going to come down to economics, it’s not going to come down to anything other than that,” said Bijur.

Satellite: What Can it Offer?

Nearly every major satellite service provider with an IFC offering was also at the summit this year discussing current technologies and future plans. All providers are in the midst of building and deploying next generation satellites with service offerings specifically designed to serve aviation and other mobile industries. Bill Peltola, senior director for aviation services in the Asia Pacific for satellite operator Inmarsat, gave an update on the company’s GX Aviation offering that plans to be the first global, high-speed aviation broadband service.

“With [Inmarsat 5 GX Aviation satellites], each satellite has 72 global service beams, and we also have beams that are moveable in real time. We can actually, physically steer beams to an area where we need coverage and we do that for airlines, whether it's in areas of high concentration, their hubs, or so on. We have three satellites up right now for GX, which cover the earth, and we’ve built and tested a fourth satellite and that will be launched this year. We have a contract with SpaceX to launch that. It will be launched in an area which requires the most coverage. We also recently announced the contract to build the next generation satellite, which is our sixth generation, Inmarsat 6,” said Peltola, noting that the sixth generation satellite will feature a dual-payload, supporting both Ka-band and L-band services, in order to add more capacity for its legacy cockpit communications system.

SES also gave a presentation where it outlined its High Throughput Satellite (HTS) strategy going forward, and how it relates to in-flight connectivity. These new satellites will provide global coverage, and give SES much more flexibility to serve the in-flight connectivity market. Some of these satellites will start to launch in 2017.

Meherwan Polad, senior director of business development for commercial mobile systems for ViaSat, also provided some in-depth perspective on how his company is handling bandwidth. He noted that his research shows that by 2019 there will be three connected devices per person on the planet.

“We have created more capacity than anyone else put together and we still don’t think that’s enough,” said Polad. “We have ViaSat 2 coming with twice the capacity and seven times the coverage of ViaSat 1. We have ViaSat 3 coming with terabit per second capacity. The key thing for us is make sure the capacity keeps up with demand. Commercial aviation has become a real priority for us.”

Tech Talks: What’s Next?

A major new feature of the conference this year was “Tech Talks,” a series of Ted Talk-style presentations, where some of the leading voices in the industry provided presentations designed to push the thinking of the global connected aircraft community forward.

During this session, David Helfgott, CEO of Phasor, discussed the type of antenna technology that he believes will be required to support all forms of connected aircraft operations both in the cabin and cockpit going forward. According to Helfgott, the commercial aviation industry is getting ready to see a new lineup of electronically steerable phased array antennas, the same kind that have been around in the military segment for years, but are just now achieving the type of economics that can make them better suited to commercial aviation.

“Dynamic beam forming antennas that are controlled in the right way are faster at scanning than any mechanical antenna and more robust. The most interesting part about electronically steered antennas is that they are scalable and can form a wide range of bandwidth requirements, depending on the type of depth and space you have available for an antenna,” Helfgott told Global Connected Aircraft Summit attendees. The Phasor CEO also discussed the future capabilities of a distributed array antenna, with multiple small antennas acting as a singular antenna that is electronically steered. The aim of the technology is to provide better data transmission for airborne aircraft.

Both William Cecil, director of business development for Teledyne Controls, and Richard Nordstrom, senior director of global marketing, Rockwell Collins, also used the Tech Talk platform to discuss what they see as an industry trend moving toward the concept of least-cost routing, in which operators select the path of their aircraft’s outbound voice and data communications traffic purely based on cost.

“There’s a big cost that an airline undertakes to put a connectivity system on an aircraft. Cost of ownership isn’t about just the system, the ongoing cost of the service and data transmission as more and more links are added to the aircraft is a factor as well. Least-cost routing is going to become more and more important. There is no one link; there’s multiple links that make sense,” said Cecil.

Cybersecurity

No discussion of the 2016 Global Connected Aircraft Summit would be complete without mentioning cyber security, which the industry is collectively addressing through standards bodies, research and facilitation of new hardware and software designed to combat emerging threats.

Fred Schreiner, chief technology officer for Thales Avionics, during the cybersecurity panel, provided an effective assessment regarding where the aviation industry stands in terms of the ability to protect critical aircraft systems from cyber threats. He also addressed what the industry needs to do to ensure aircraft remain safe from cyber threats in the future.

“There needs to be a commitment to a continuous cycle of security risk analysis or threat penetration testing — both wireless and wired systems — and improvement and remediation. There’s a constant cycle: people want to know if the system is secure, somebody may make the claim that they are secure today, but that doesn’t mean they are secure tomorrow or next week because threat vectors can change the way things are evolving quickly. We need to move and we are moving toward real-time intrusion detection,” said Schreiner. AVS