In-flight connectivity (IFC) demands for business jets have remained high during the COVID-19 pandemic and may even have heightened, as the business aviation community looks for a resurgence to pre-pandemic travel levels next year, according to avionics builders.
“Throughout everything we have seen in the past year, business aviation flights remained active with safety and connectivity remaining top priority for our customers,” according to Peeter Sööt, the director of avionics marketing at Collins Aerospace. “If anything, the pandemic has increased the need for high-quality video streaming--making it a must for business operations.”
Collins Aerospace offers a variety of satellite connectivity options for business jets, including Inmarsat, SES, Viasat, and Iridium.
In 2019, Collins Aerospace and SES announced their partnership on the Ku-SAT2000 LuxStream IFC service, and last year, Collins said that the Ku-SAT2000 satellite communications terminal had received approval through supplemental type certificates (STC) for installation on the Bombardier Global series and the Gulfstream Aerospace G350, G450, GV, and G550 aircraft.
“We also have additional [LuxStream] STCs expected this year on other aircraft types,” according to Sööt.
SmartSky Networks plans to debut its office-grade inflight air-to-ground (ATG) Wi-Fi service for business jets this year, initially with flight departments and operators with mid-size and large planes, followed next year by smaller jets and turboprops. The service is to feature secure video streaming and aircraft health monitoring in all weather.
“SmartSky’s air-to-ground network technology uniquely combines elements of the most advanced (4G LTE and 5G) wireless broadband technologies,” Ryan Stone, the president of SmartSky, wrote in an email. “The scalable, single beam approach for inflight connectivity and use of extensive unlicensed spectrum coupled with other patented technologies provides a low latency, multi-GB/hour, balanced bidirectional connection that is difficult and costly to achieve with other inflight connectivity solutions.”
While SmartSky initially planned to launch its 4G ATG service in 2016, the company said that developing the service, which is to be a tenfold improvement over the industry standard, has encountered obstacles.
“Delivering any 10x system requires substantial innovation and overcoming obstacles to commercialization,” per Stone. “Importantly, we’ve taken steps to address and overcome several key development and supply chain constraints, and now have created an achievable path to launch that meets our objectives.”
In 2019, SmartSky announced a partnership with Mosaic ATM on SmartSky’s Skytelligence platform for IFC applications. Through Skytelligence, aviation companies can develop their smartphone and tablet-based applications and share flight, weather, and operations data.
“SmartSky’s patented data exchange, Skytelligence®, drives the development of innovative avionics and software applications that need data from the connected aircraft ecosystem,” according to Stone. “Designed to support secure information sharing across any IP-based network, including being open to feeds from other satellite and air-to-ground networks, Skytelligence provides the interoperability needed to connect the disparate system and data sources required for innovative solutions.”
In addition to such connectivity solutions, 5G looks to be in the offing.
While Gogo CEO Oakleigh Thorne told investors in March that the IFC service provider will deploy its 5G network in 2022--a year later than planned, due in part to a worldwide semiconductor chip shortage, the company says that IFC demand for its existing AVANCE L5 service remains strong.
In advance of the 5G roll-out next year, Gogo said that it has been testing the 5G belly-mounted antennas and has finished its first end-to-end call using the 5G SIM card.
“In the COVID-19 era, one thing has become clear: the need for inflight connectivity is more important than ever before,” Sergio Aguirre, the president of Gogo’s business aviation division, wrote in an email. “Many business executives today are using their ‘office in the sky’ as a critical asset to manage the demands on their professional and personal lives while adhering to safety and social distancing requirements. They’re using technology onboard the aircraft to conduct virtual meetings during flights, manage their inbox, lead remote workforces, conduct video conference calls, and stay on top of breaking news. Many were also holding in-person meetings onboard the aircraft while it’s on the tarmac instead of driving to an office location to help ensure personal health and safety.”
Business travelers require greater bandwidth, faster speeds, and more personal services—requirements met by AVANCE L5, and, in the future, by Gogo 5G, according to Aguirre.
“We have operators who have told us repeatedly the three most important things on the airplane to the people who sit in the back are the crew, the catering, and the connectivity,” per Aguirre. “That demand is only going to increase and that’s where 5G comes into play. It will have the ability to meet that added demand for faster speeds and more bandwidth as that growth of use takes shape.”
While business aviation flights have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, “we’re seeing a double-digit increase in data consumption than we did before COVID,” Aguirre said. “So even though flights are down, data usage is up – it’s a statement about how important connectivity has become.”
Gogo's 5G network will become accessible next year to business aviation operators in North America as a single channel, combining their existing network's 4 megahertz of licensed spectrum with 60 megahertz of 2.4 unlicensed spectra.
The 5G network will leverage the existing 250 towers that enable Gogo’s current 3G and 4G IFC network service on business jets today. The 5G network will use an unlicensed spectrum in the 2.4 GHz band, with a new modem and beamforming technology providing the airplane-to-ground station link.
Gogo expects the transition of business jet operators from the AVANCE L5, installed on 1,500 aircraft, to the 5G system will be fairly easy, as such operators will need only to add the 5G LRU, connect the latter to the AVANCE L5 LRU, and replace the L5 belly-mounted antennas with the 5G antennas. The L5 antennas and the 5G antennas are the same size and have the same hole pattern and wiring, Gogo said.
AVANCE’s LRU enables internet, voice, entertainment, cockpit apps, self-service tools, and remote support, while AVANCE systems also have a built-in router and bearers able to connect to Gogo’s air-to-ground network or other satellite networks.
AVANCE’s software is also enabling connectivity at lower altitudes—at 3,000 AGL, versus the previous 10,000 feet. The low-cost software push requires no maintenance personnel to board the aircraft—what amounts to a “massive increase in efficiency and saves operators thousands [of dollars] every time we push new software,” according to Aguirre.
“That lower service altitude is significant for business travelers because it can provide up to 20 minutes additional connectivity time during normal flights and it makes connectivity more feasible for aircraft that fly short hops or at low altitudes for most of the flight,” Aguirre said. “One of the biggest benefits with the lower service level has been with the turboprops and some of the aircraft that fly in congested airspace. One of our customers told us that when he flies into Teterboro airport just outside New York City, every time they have him drop below 10,000 feet way early, oftentimes for 30 minutes or longer before landing, to avoid all the commercial aircraft flying into Newark, JFK or LaGuardia. Whenever that happened, he’d lose connectivity, but now he has that much more time to continue working.”
Beyond AVANCE, the company said that its Gogo DASH and Gogo Mix systems allow IFC monitoring.
“Operators can now pull DASH up on the ground or in the aircraft and see that they have five devices on but one of them isn’t working properly, and that happens to be the boss’s device,” Aguirre said. “And by digging deeper, they can see that the system is good, so they know it’s just a fix to the boss’s device. And MIX allows them to segregate the onboard signals in the cabin so you can assign different frequencies to different people (or their device) which can ensure some have the best experience possible – such as the CEO, or other lead executives.”
In the past, cost and size, weight, and power constraints limited satellite-based high-speed connectivity to large-cabin and long-range aircraft, but Viasat said that it is seeing great demand now for such greater than 20 Mbps connectivity using the company’s Ka-band or Ku-band 3-LRU chipsets on super-mid cabin aircraft, including the Embraer Praetor, Bombardier Challenger 300 series and the Gulfstream G280.
“COVID flying restriction served to accelerate this trend, as fliers couldn’t fly to other countries/continents and with the increased usage of domestic fractional or charter aircraft usage, demand for internet service aboard increased,” according to James Person, Viasat’s head of sales and business development for business aviation.
“A second trend that continues is the increase in the amount of video that is consumed aboard business and private aircraft,” Person wrote in an email. “As cellular plans and networks on the ground moved to enable streaming film, sports, and other content, those same mobile users kept their expectations high when going airborne. Again, a COVID trend of video conference calling accelerated this trend of the expectation for video calls while in flight. Viasat lifted the lid on its Ka-band speeds that enabled more users to stream simultaneously on business aircraft and added a new 200 GB monthly plan as well as including its Unlimited Streaming option in its top plans to support this trend of greater video consumption.”
Viasat said that it is developing higher bandwidth satellite designs, more efficient ground networks, and more advanced hardware and software, including applications. Along with such developments may come a broader range of satellite antennas, including phased array/flat panel designs, for installation on smaller business and private aircraft.