That stern announcement on commercial flights that passengers must turn off their mobile devices before take-off and landing will soon be a thing of the past as new satellite-based systems enable airplanes to be connected in a way unimaginable just a few years ago.
According to Aviation Today, currently more than 70 airlines offer inflight Wi-Fi and most of the major carriers are upgrading onboard technology to meet consumer demand for faster speeds, more bandwidth and reliability as they seek both new revenue-generating services and significant operational improvements.
It is hardly surprising; FlightView’s 2014 Traveller Survey found that more than 80% of US passengers carry a smartphone onboard and, according to the 2017 annual global Inflight Connectivity Survey, some 61% of passengers see high-quality inflight Wi-Fi availability more important to them than onboard entertainment.
This trend towards connected aircraft can also be seen in Airbus’ recent Global Market Forecast, which predicts that the number of connected aircraft will grow from around 5,000 in 2015 to 23,100 by 2025, accounting for 100% of the widebody fleet and 50% of the single-aisle fleet.
In 2016 alone, around 60% of A330s and 88% of A350 XWB aircraft left the assembly line fitted with high-bandwidth connectivity (HBC). The A350 is Airbus’ first ‘digital native’, a product so in tune with the times that it is delivered HBC-ready.
More and better connectivity
At Airbus, Head of Special Projects Bruno Pasquier is leading a programme called the Reliable Aircraft Connectivity demonstrator to further transform the connectivity of the company’s products.
The project is the result of a clear need to develop faster and more reliable communications as more and more services are requesting them in aeronautic and space domains.
Functions such as formation flight, package delivery and Urban Air Mobility (UAM) as well as the digitisation of maintenance and flight operations support services mean that the development of a 21st century communications system is vital.
“Today’s vision for future services is constrained by today’s communications infrastructure: it’s not reliable enough, it’s not secure enough, it costs too much and it’s not always available when we need it,” Pasquier says.
“As a result, we have long-term, conservative plans for incorporating new services into our systems but we know that if our plans are too pragmatic, we face a risk of being overtaken by competition in the worst case or missing a market opportunity.
“The Reliable Aircraft Connectivity demonstrator addresses the reliability, security, cost, and performance needed for services of the future.”
Due to be completed by the end of 2018, the demonstrator project currently consists of a team of six people from Airbus and a number of partners from universities in the US such as Arizona State University and Cornell in New York and elsewhere as well as key startups.
“We are recruiting people highly skilled in radio waveform, software-defined radio, hardware radio and communication systems,” he says.
It is also important to ensure that experts from within Airbus join the project so that at the end of the demonstrator they can return to their ‘home’ divisions armed with fresh knowledge that can be used to develop connectivity services.
Pasquier adds, “The challenge is to deliver a new communications architecture that will be less costly and simpler. We also intend to deliver a dual satellite conformal terminal capacity that can offer reliable, ubiquitous coverage, with less drag and at a lower cost.”
Better connectivity should also make maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) operations more efficient by transmitting live data about an aircraft’s structural health, which can then be analysed to keep repair time to a minimum.
For more coordinated operations such as formation flight and refueling, and autonomous or remotely piloted capability, Pasquier says that “Assured Comms” or Ultra Reliable Low Latency Comms (URLLC) will provide the required accuracy better than ILS, GBAS or visual systems and cheaper than LIDAR based approaches.
Another important part of the demonstrator is to improve the passenger experience by providing an inflight connection that is as good as a home broadband service.
Pasquier believes that this can facilitate ancillary services and inflight e-commerce: “Passengers could shop online and order a product or service while they are onboard, and then pick up their parcel when they arrive at their destination.”
He also reveals that Airbus is looking at adding servers to aircraft — in partnership with online providers — to bridge any gaps in live data transmission and manage it locally.
For Pasquier, the demonstrator has been a rewarding experience so far and not just because of the challenges of the programme.
“We are working in an international environment in which many people from different backgrounds and skills are working on many different things. There is not only a diversity of contributors from across our divisions, our central research teams but also from startups and universities all around the world,” he says.
“The project has involved so many of the skills necessary to design a demonstrator and the limited timescale means we have developed a working culture that is strongly independent, with direct contacts, less bureaucracy, and a strong team focus.”
In the end, he believes it will be part of a game-changing development in the future of aerospace: “What seems clear to me is that, rather than simply being a connected user, Airbus will become a part of the overall global communications network; we will be an end user but also a provider and disseminator of data for others.”