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Airbus, Boeing Seek Flexibility in Connected Airframes

Airbus and Boeing are looking toward a future in which airframes are manfucturered with a flexible open architecture to enable quick connectivity upgrades for operators.

Airbus and Boeing hold the aviation industry’s most unique perspective and position within the global connected aircraft ecosystem. The two OEMs build the airframes within which all of the links, modems, antennas and other associated equipment that enable aircraft connectivity must be deployed.

During individual presentations at the 2018 Airlines Electronic Engineering Committee (AEEC) and Avionics Maintenance Conference (AMC) annual general sessions, representatives from Airbus and Boeing provided insight on their future for enabling flexible open architecture infrastructure within their airframes. Both companies are focused on establishing digital backbones to give operators a way to upgrade connectivity to the newest and fastest solutions available over the 20- to 30-year lifespan of the airframe.

The two companies are also involved in initiatives designed to improve the connectivity options available to airlines as well as the security associated with that connectivity. Boeing, for example, is an active member of the Aviation Information Sharing and Analysis Center (ISAC), which seeks to improve the aviation industry’s ability to address emerging cyber and other security threats. Airbus is the only airframe manufacturer in the Seamless Air Alliance, a newly launched partnership featuring Airtel, Delta, Gogo, OneWeb and Sprint. The alliance wants to reduce the cost of installation and operation of in-flight internet services while also providing more commonality and integration across competitors within the connected aircraft market. Elsewhere, Airbus is involved in a unique European Union project designed to bring cellular 4G, and eventually 5G, connectivity to its airplanes.

Boeing’s Shared Resource Strategy

Boeing’s latest commercial market forecast sees $6.1 trillion in demand, requiring deliveries of 41,000 new aircraft that will enter service over the next two decades. The majority of those aircraft will enter service with in-flight internet capabilities, or at least the basic airframe infrastructure in the form of wiring configuration and other supporting hardware and software.

During her presentation at the AEEC annual session, Laurel Matthews, connectivity manager for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, highlighted the three core principles that Boeing is focused on providing for connected aircraft into the future: flexible architecture, the ability to update technologies on the aircraft simply and affordably, and a recognition that airplane connectivity is a shared resource.

“We know that they’re going to progress faster than the lifespan of an aircraft,” said Matthews, referring to the speed at which connected aircraft suppliers are introducing new solutions that are faster and more reliable than what is available today. “We need to be able to adopt those in our network infrastructure that we create from line fit day one.”

A key focus for Boeing in supporting external service providers, antenna manufacturers and modem suppliers is to be able to have hardware and software standards, especially as it pertains to the aircraft antenna.

That is a major challenge that Boeing has to deal with, especially considering the unique position that it holds within the connected aircraft ecosystem as the airframe manufacturer trying to sell its airplanes to airline customers. At the same time, every new fleet or airplane sale comes with a decision by the airline on whether to include in-flight internet capability of some kind. When an airline announces an agreement or a new fleet purchase order with Boeing or Airbus, that airline often will not receive the first airplane under that fleet order for another two to three years.

During that time period, an unlimited number of new connectivity solutions and services could be unveiled. As an example, in 2017 Gogo announced the first successful test flight of its next-generation air-to-ground (ATG) in-flight internet network, which will be enabled by a new antenna and modem that Gogo claims will produce peak speeds of more than 100 mbps per aircraft. Not to be outdone, SmartSky Networks, an ATG competitor to Gogo, has its own 4G LTE network scheduled to become operational this year. Demonstration flights from SmartSky have shown passengers experiencing peak connection speeds in excess of 10 mbps.

On the space-based side of the connected aircraft ecosystem, satellite service providers ViaSat and Iridium are also rolling out next-generation networks. Inmarsat just launched the commercial service of its Ka-band network GX Aviation last year. United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based satellite operator Yahsat announced the first successful trial of a 50 mbps in-flight internet connection using its “Al Yah 2” Ka-band satellite.

That means if an airline signed a purchase agreement for new Boeing airplanes in 2015 or 2016 and starts receiving them in 2017 or 2018, there’s a possibility that the connectivity featured on the new fleet will be less capable than the latest solutions that are available on the market. That leads to the need for an easier way to adopt new connectivity.

“Flexible architecture: what does that mean? For us it means we need to create a backbone within the airplane that is neutral to technologies,” said Matthews. She also discussed the internet space race, with Google’s Project Loon testing the ability of a high-altitude air balloon providing internet service. She also referenced Facebook’s desire to use its solar-powered Aquila Drone and OneWeb’s low-earth orbit constellation of 700 satellites.

According to Matthews, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has more than 20,000 applications for new satellite constellations to consider right now.

“Going forth in the next 10 or so years, there’s going to be a space where the mechanically steered antennas of today have to co-exist with electronically steered phased arrays that have a lower profile and different installation needs. And we need to work as an industry to drive out as much variability as we can,” she added.

Airbus Seeks Flexible Architecture

Similarly, Airbus is focused on establishing a flexible connected aircraft architecture within its airframes that will allow operators to progressively upgrade their connectivity over the lifespan of the airframe without the need for hardware changes that are both timely and expensive. The latest order and delivery information available from the Airbus commercial airplanes division shows that as of May 1, there were 7,753 A320-family aircraft in operation. While Gogo recently obtained its first supplemental type certificate (STC) for its newer, faster 2Ku antenna and modem on the A321neo (new engine option), many of those A320s in operation right now feature an older architecture.

“On the A320 and A330 fleet, the biggest challenge, compared to the A380 and A350, is that we do not have any onboard networks there with Ethernet IP and so on,” said Jean-Francois Saint-Etienne, head of systems sales and marketing for Airbus, at the AEEC annual session.

“We have to find a new architecture that can capture much more data than we can today, improve the communications capacity and provide and host applications,” said Saint-Etienne.

Airbus would like to establish for the A320 family what it already provides out of the factory for in-production A350 aircraft. The A350 features a fiber-optic backbone, which provides five times the throughput per passenger of the previous generation. On the A350, there is also a baseline Airline Network Architecture and Standard SwiftBroadband (SBB) satellite communications connectivity provided.

Airbus has taken some initiative to explore new technologies and architectures that can provide more flexibility for A320 and A330 operators.

One of the ways it is doing this is through “Project ICARO-EU,” in which it partnered with Swedish engineering and technology university KTH Sweden, Italian telecommunications research center Create-Net and U.S.-based telecommunications company Ericsson to create an integrated gate-to-gate direct ATG communications system. Under the project, Ericsson as telecommunications vendor will provide radio connectivity equipment to Airbus, which will coordinate the integration of the ICARO-EU system and provide it to airline companies.

The system also integrates machine-type communications to support various wireless onboard applications and use cases. One of the components of the project is to enable license-assisted access (LAA) inside an aircraft. This type of access uses cellular communications within unlicensed frequency bands to bring passengers more network capacity. The ICARO EU 4G system on board the aircraft is connected to modified ground base stations and optionally satellites for forwarding the data and back. To counter the constant movement of an aircraft, which can present challenges to maintaining satellite-based or ATG-based connectivity signals, the connection is handed over from one base station to the next.

“Communication on ground will remain always cheaper than in flight,” said Saint-Etienne. “We need to cope with technology evolution. We have 4G today, but we will have 5G one day. We have new satcom constellation coming. We need to have the capacity to integrate technology at a lower cost.”