Transforming the way the world connects
When Atlanta-based NXT Communications (NXTCOMM) burst on the scene this summer, it did so with a mission to solve a longstanding challenge in the aero industry: a cost-effective electronically steered antenna solution.
Led by co-founders Dave Horton and Tim Morton and Chief Technology Officer Carl Novello, NXTCOMM is leading the push to transform the aero antenna IFC marketplace. No ordinary startup, NXTCOMM’s executive team brings decades of experience from IFC aviation and satcom markets. These leaders came together to unlock connectivity challenges facing aviation and other mobility markets.
In June, the company announced design completion of the AeroMax® antenna. This higher performance, lower-cost, flat-panel satellite antenna solution will transform the in-flight experience of passengers, while offering airlines more affordable and highly reliable modular antennas with no moving parts.
Featuring reduced size, weight, and power, and a lower profile to save fuel, AeroMax offers significantly better gain and thermal efficiency than current antenna solutions on the market.
Whereas novel flat panel antenna concepts have been pursued for years, many still in R&D, NXTCOMM has taken a decidedly less risky, faster-to-market approach, choosing to innovate on existing, proven technology already flying in demanding DoD environments.
NXTCOMM’s high-throughput antenna leverages ‘fragmented aperture’ technology, the result of decades of defense R&D investment and collaboration with NXTCOMM’s technical research partner, Georgia Tech Research Institute.
The AeroMax antenna offers both higher RF throughput and aperture efficiency than other approaches.
Its production design uses standard PCB fabrication methods and commercial-off-the-shelf components, making AeroMax mass-producible at lower costs. NXTCOMM’s unique, highly modular Lego-like architecture also scales to support the throughput or service requirements of nearly any type aircraft.
As a result, NXTCOMM’s antennas are inherently wideband and will support the full Ku-band 2.5 GHz frequency range, eliminating the bottlenecks of traditional IFC solutions to support faster connectivity for every passenger. These electronically steerable antennas, which feature no moving parts, can also seamlessly switch across LEO, MEO and GEO multi-orbit beams — all from a single antenna — to further unlock the promise of high-capacity satcom in a future-proof manner.
For an industry still reeling from a global pandemic and determined to win back customers once widespread travel resumes, NXTCOMM’s antennas will fill a critical broadband void. Both business and commercial airline operators can benefit from a high-performance flat panel antenna that paves the way for differentiated passenger experiences. The demand for high-throughput, always-on connectivity will likely intensify as business and leisure travelers return to the skies in a post-COVID-19 world. NXTCOMM stands ready to meet airlines’ mounting broadband crunch head-on.
NXTCOMM just announced its new AeroMax electronically steered array (ESA) antenna is being developed for the commercial and defense aviation market. What critical broadband need do you see AeroMax meeting for the aviation industry?
The always-connected world we live in requires a better experience for passengers in the cabin. Today, their expectations are not being met because of poor antenna performance.
The aviation market continues to be challenged by the false starts to build a cost-effective electronically scanned phased array antenna – this was true even before the pandemic put the airlines in a financial tailspin. The economics of maintaining mechanically steered antennas are challenging - they not only fail, but also by design they create additional drag on an aircraft that can adversely affect fuel usage.
We are focused on building a great antenna with the passenger experience in mind. We are focused on aviation, on commercializing proven technology and on simplicity in our design and manufacturing.
We are developing a category of antennas using architecture that’s been well proven on defense aircraft for a dozen years now. The antennas are fundamentally a circuit board, which is easy to scale up or down.
We don’t seek to replicate exotic materials that require specialization and don’t lend themselves to mass production. Our production method is comparable to manufacturing a mobile phone’s main board.
We are also focused on giving airlines the increased throughput they need to drive monetization and service offerings. Airlines need to deliver a better connectivity experience that will result in happier customers who will want to fly with them again.
How can AeroMax's ESA design with no moving parts improve in-flight connectivity performance over the mechanically steerable antennas featured on the majority of today's in-service airliners and business jets?
Our goal is to deliver a new level of in-flight experience to passengers that exceeds expectations and unlocks new insights and revenue opportunities for airlines.
We’ve watched as industry players have pursued new concepts for flat panel or electronically steered antennas. Most are a hybrid of electronic or mechanical array, and none until NXTCOMM have successfully leveraged proven technology that doesn’t require invention. Invention is hard. Fortunately for us, this is well-proven technology we are commercializing for mobility users, starting with airlines.
At NXTCOMM, we’ve taken a crawl-walk-run approach to solving the electronically steerable antenna challenge. Collaborating with Georgia Tech Research Institute on their patented fragmented aperture technology, we are introducing an antenna with significantly improved reliability than these hybrid solutions. With no moving parts and no gears to break down, the AeoMax antenna is also flatter than anything in the market, and that translates to fuel and other savings.
The two key components of higher performance are higher efficiency - that’s the fragmented aperture technology core to our solution – and our uniquely wideband technology. The efficiency of our antenna is driven by the better math and better design of the antenna part that faces the satellite. We’re more efficient because we start from the side that faces the satellite. NXTCOMM’s antenna is unique in that it allows for the full two gigahertz on the face of the antenna. So, we offer dynamic, instantaneous bandwidth, 2 ½ GHz wide.
We also use no exotic manufacturing – our antenna is fundamentally manufactured as a PCB. Unlike other solutions that use highly machined components with very exact tolerances, our technology is simple. It has a smaller LRU count and features consolidated electronics with a scalable architecture comparable to LEGO bricks. We don’t waste space under the radome -that’s a huge benefit of our flat panel design.
What type of upgrade path to ESA is NXTCOMM offering to operators that can help reduce aircraft modification costs?
NXTCOMM will offer operators a complete turnkey IFC solution (including antenna, hardware, and installation) as a financial alternative to traditional CapEx investment.
Customers will not have to de-mod the aircraft to put in the NXTCOMM system. We have an engineered solution that allows for a drop-in replacement of an existing ARINC 791 configuration. If you don’t have to change out the structural hardware or drill holes in the fuselage to accommodate our platform, that saves a lot of time in the installation process. We have an adaptor plate that supports the subarrays we use in our antenna configuration -that is dropped inside the form factor of the 791 radome structure. We will offer both OEM installs or retrofit options to commercial and business jet customers. Our price point will be comparable to what airlines currently pay for mechanically steered antenna installations.
Can you provide a timeline on entry into service for AeroMax and what type of aircraft is NXTCOMM targeting initially?
We intend to be in low rate initial production of our Ku-band antenna by Q4 2021, followed by our Ka-band antenna in spring 2022.
We will have configuration options to support multiple aircraft types, including STC, as well as installation services. We will offer a total turnkey solution for the antenna hardware installation. Our commercial aviation entry point will be single-aisle aircraft – ranging from regional jets like the Embraer E1 and E2 and the Bombardier CRJ700/900, to larger narrowbodies such as the Airbus A220 and the Boeing 737.
Providing the foundation for developing a contactless airport experience
Collins Aerospace is a leader in technologically advanced, intelligent solutions that help to redefine the aerospace and defense industry. Our solutions make the skies and spaces we touch smarter and more amazing than ever.
We dedicate our capabilities, comprehensive portfolio and expertise to solving customers’ toughest challenges and meeting the demands of the global market. Our customers include aircraft manufacturers, engine manufacturers, airlines, airports and business aviation owners and operators, along with defense ministries and government agencies and contractors.
Today, we have systems and equipment on nearly every aircraft platform – from avionics to landing gear, nacelles to cabin seating, fuel systems to connectivity and much more – and substantial content on various UAVs, satellites and ground and maritime vehicles. About 60 million messages travel across our secure global air and ground network every day, enhancing communication, efficiency and safety for airlines, pilots, flight crew and more. Our communications systems transmit nearly 70 percent of U.S. and allied military airborne communication. And our pioneering innovations – from space suits to GPS, Wi-fi to synthetic vision, propellers to propulsion – have helped define our industry and the greater world for generations.
As a leading provider of aerospace technology, we are uniquely positioned to help airports and airlines make the contactless journey a reality. With decades of experience and proven expertise in airport operations, baggage systems, passenger processing, airport cybersecurity, cloud solutions, in-flight connectivity and much more, Collins Aerospace is the only provider that can offer the full range of technology solutions to create a seamless, end-to-end, contact-free passenger journey.
Our team at Collins Aerospace continues to deliver next-generation passenger processing solutions that will improve the contactless passenger journey through airports and create innovative ways to address the reality of traveling in a post-pandemic environment. Our technologies for developing a contactless journey include:
ARINC Self-Service Solutions: Our passenger processing and passenger facilitation solutions help get passengers into and through the airport as quickly as possible, including:
- Check-in kiosks
- Baggage processing kisk and baggage drops
- Security checkpoints
ARINC SelfPass™ Biometric solutions: Enable document-free movement through airport touchpoints with passenger self-enrollment and the creation of a single-token identification:
- Using facial recognition technology integrated into ARINC Self Service solutions eliminates the need for passengers to present any documents – or even touch any airport system – to check-in, print a bag tag, drop off bags, pass through pre-security and board an aircraft.
To learn more, please visit collinsaerospace.com.
Our audience primarily knows Collins Aerospace from the avionics the company supplies for airliners, business jets and military aircraft. However, as the COVID-19 global pandemic has significantly impacted all segments of the global aerospace industry, are you starting to see demand for more innovation in the other areas that you have supported for a number of years?
Currently I hold the position of vice president general manager of our information management systems group. In that role I am responsible for running a lot of the communications from the air to ground, the ground-to-ground network communications between airlines and airports, and then also doing a lot of flight planning and trip support planning out of the business aviation market.
I've also been leading over the last three months, the “Redefining air travel” initiative, which is really similar to what a lot of folks have been doing across the industry toward restoring customer confidence in air travel. I have been spending a great deal of time focused on talking to airport customers, the airline customers, medical authorities, regulatory authorities, technical experts and a variety of other folks really looking at initiatives and innovations that will drastically help improve the passenger journey.
One of the things that our company did was we put together this task force where sent a callout across our company and being an innovative company, everybody wanted to help and had ideas. I can tell you to date that this task force has generated over 260 invention disclosures, and we’re now well over 100 provisional paths filed for ideas, technologies and processes that are attempting to help improve the COVID-19 challenges facing passenger air travel right now.
Airlines are slowly starting to increase flight operations again and one of the initiatives many operators are undertaking is the effort to reduce passenger touchpoints. What steps are being taken by Collins Aerospace to create a more contactless passenger journey?
Contactless travel is our biggest focus right now. Our interiors group is looking at everything that has the possibility of becoming contactless in the cabin. Particularly the lavs, are a primary point of interest, everything from the faucet, to the soap dispensers to the flush button to the stool itself, how can you make as many lavatory elements as possible contactless?
Something that we will be rolling out at the end of this month will be a mobile application that works for all common use. Instead of using an individual airline mobile app, like an American Airlines, specifically owned kiosk to check in at the airport, where you can operate it from within the app, ours will be designed for common use.
The new app will enable passengers to use the same app at every kiosk, whether there’s be 40 airlines or more on there, passengers will be able to pull up their app and use it to everything that kiosk does. It will allow you to print your bag tag, change your seat, make your payment and get checked in all using the app.
We’re spending a lot of time looking at how we can make improvements to our app, biometrics and facial recognition technology that can aid the contactless journey from curb to aircraft. Through not having to have over documents, you don’t have to hand over your ID or boarding pass, you’re controlling every aspect of your journey either with your face or in some cases with your smart phone as well.
In recent years, some airports and airlines have introduced passenger-facing biometrics initiatives. Is this a technology Collins is using to reduce passenger touchpoints within the airport environment? Are there any examples that you can provide?
We have a biometric solution that is out there and kind of already had its own business case prior to COVID, which makes it very interesting. At airports in the pre COVID-19 era, we were trying to figure out how do we get all of our passengers through the airport.
Some airports were already exploring different aspects of biometrics and using artificial intelligence, different mobile applications to kind of help reduce congestion and improve the customer experience going to the airport. So the good news is there's technology already there that exists. And with some simple adaptations, we've been able to really create an even more touchless or contactless plus journey. But we’re also going one step further.
Our biometrics is a simple tiny camera that is very innovative. There are slots in that camera to add more functionality, and right now we have a trial going where we embedded a thermal camera for temperature screening.
There’s another open slot where we’re looking at adding a triple biomarker sensor that we were able to borrow from Raytheon as they were already using it on the defense side. Our theory behind the use of the biomarker is that it could help go beyond temperature screenings. It could be used to add other layers like respiratory rate, blood oxygen and heart rate, and by adding these additional biomarkers to the temperature screening you will have a greater chance of really being able to identify ill passengers.
Cybersecurity remains a top aviation IT concern amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. As Collins uses digital transformation to enable a more contactless passenger journey, how are you ensuring cyber risks and concerns are being addressed?
For years we’ve been trusted with addressing the security and cybersecurity aspects of messaging from the aircraft to the ground, the airport messaging and even passenger information. It’s been our heritage within ARINC and information management systems for years. And we've always approached it from both the design and development against cybersecurity industry standards.
One example I can give you is the PCI DSS standard, which is the highest standard for securing credit card data. For example, our cloud system - the ARINC Multi-User System Environment (cMUSE) – I believe is one of the only ones in the world right now that features that standard for the protection of personal credit card data. So we’re always trying to stay at the highest level of security standards.
But I think at the heart of one of the questions that people often wonder about, when you talk about biometrics, I can tell you there, there's a belief that when you walk up to a biometric camera, you know, that somebody is taking a picture and storing your personal information.
The way our solution works is actually when you walk up, it takes like a 37-point dimension measurement of your face, and then it takes and sends the dimensions electronically and sends it back to one of the governmental databases, like for example Customs and Border Patrol passport identification. It then matches your dimensions against their storage of that information and sends a confirmation back.
I think cybersecurity is ultimately at the core of everything we do. We actually even have our own cybersecurity 24/7 operational desk that is monitoring all of our services as well for any kind of a potential breach. We do a multi-layered approach and part of the beauty of coming together with one of the top security experts in Raytheon is they continue to also show us new tools, applications, and processes that we can use to make ourselves even safer.