The global in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFC) market in aircraft is big, and poised to get bigger. According to a December 2022 report released by Stratview Research, this market is projected to reach a value of $6.3 billion globally in 2027, which amounts to a 16.7 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR) between 2022 and 2027.
For the companies that build satellite communications (SATCOM) antennas for aircraft, this is very good news. But what really matters to them is the number of new planes being built during this time period that will need onboard SATCOM antennas.
Bill Milroy is CTO and co-founder, ThinKom Solutions, Inc. (ThinKom), a provider of ultra-low-profile broadband antenna solutions for commercial, business, government, and military aviation applications. “Airbus and Boeing delivered more than 1,100 aircraft in 2022 and are projected to deliver more than 1,900 in 2027,” he said. “With more than 90 percent expected to be delivered to airlines with in-flight connectivity hardware installed at the factory, that market alone is more than 1,700 aircraft per year needing SATCOM antennas by 2027, and growing.”
The Necessity of Connectivity
The growth of the aviation SATCOM antenna market isn’t just a factor of more aircraft being built. It is also an indication of how vital connectivity has become to the flying public. Passengers now expect to be able to stay connected no matter where they are. Although they will grudgingly tolerate little bags of peanuts and crowded seats as the cost of cheap commercial air travel, they won’t accept being cut off from the web.
“More and more aircraft are installing IFC capabilities every day, and commercial airline passengers are seeking consistent, easy web access across the entirety of airline fleets,” said Milroy. “Passengers have come to expect at-home connectivity speeds and experience in the sky, which requires a robust connectivity ecosystem from the satellite to the onboard hardware.”
“The aviation SATCOM market continues to grow as passengers and operators no longer see connectivity as an option, but as a requirement,” agreed Matt Landel. He is director of applied technology at Astronics Connectivity Systems and Certification (Astronics CSC), which offers SATCOM antenna, terminal, installation design and certification services and field support to aviation customers. “This is particularly true for aircraft that fly intercontinental routes, across oceans and remote regions where other connectivity options are either non-existent or very limited.”
For commercial flights over the continental United States, some of this demand for constant connectivity can be met using air-to-ground (ATG) communications from providers such as SmartSky Networks. This company uses the unlicensed 2.4GHz spectrum band plus 4G/5G technologies to provide ATG transmission links between aircraft and ground stations. To receive/send ATG signals, the aircraft must be equipped with a SmartSky Flagship aircraft base radio and either a SmartSky
Flagship Full-Duplex Quad or High-Performance Blade hull-mounted antenna.
“Our network is designed to move a large amount of data to and from aircraft using a beam-forming technology which provides dedicated bandwidth to each aircraft,” said Sean Reilly, vice president of air transport management and digital solutions at Smart Sky Networks. Riley describes ATG connectivity as being “complementary” to aircraft SATCOM connectivity, and filling a gap in this form of communications. “The problem with SATCOM is that the throughput going off the airplane is very small,” he said. “It’s usually just designed to make a request to say ‘I need this video content’, and then it streams the request back down through that pipe. In contrast, SmartSky has a large throughput coming off the aircraft as well, much like you would have at home. This allows it to bolster the connectivity being provided when over the SmartSky coverage area, and improve the connectivity experience for everyone in the aircraft using applications where high speed data is needed both to and from the aircraft.”
The Demands of Constant Connectivity
Supporting airborne demands for constant connectivity poses a number of challenges to aviation SATCOM antenna manufacturers.
For example, the more popular and diverse that aviation SATCOM becomes — not just in the commercial world, but across all kinds of aircraft — the more that antenna manufacturers have to do to satisfy the entire market.
“As more and more aircraft get online, it becomes critical to support a broader range of demands from end users,” said Milroy. “At one end of the spectrum, this means scaling our ThinAir antenna solutions to support smaller aircraft, including business jets or smaller regional aircraft. The new ThinKom Ka1717 is a compelling offering in that segment.”
“At the other end of the aviation connectivity market, we see a demand for ever higher amounts of bandwidth to support hundreds of users online on a jumbo jet,” he continued. “That requires not just access to more spectrum from satellites, but also making more efficient use of that spectrum to control bandwidth costs. Our patented Variable Inclination Continuous Transverse Stub (VICTS) architecture delivers high performance and broad frequency support while requiring substantially less processing power than electronically steered antennas (ESAs).”
Other Market Trends
The demand for always-on in-flight connectivity is just one of the trends driving the aviation SATCOM antenna industry these days.
For instance, new faster, lighter, and smaller electronic technologies are being adopted by this industry, as they are by communications equipment manufacturers in general. This requires new products and production processes to be developed, but it comes with a payoff: “The performance, size, cost and ease of installing/servicing aviation SATCOM antennas are all improving,” said Landel. “Advances in electronics and RF components are allowing for more compact installations and improved performance, limited only by the physics of capturing and transmitting the energy required to move data at the desired speeds.”
In-aircraft network architectures are also leveraging these advances to provide dynamic allocation of satellite bandwidth aloft, resulting in better overall service for SATCOM customers.
“Where once bandwidth from a satellite was distributed to and shared by users on a continental basis, now GEO/HTS (Geosynchronous Earth Orbit/High Throughput Satellite) and LEO/MEO Low Earth Orbit/Medium Earth Orbit) beams can distribute bandwidth into much smaller geographic areas,” Landel noted. “Meanwhile, advances in modulation and satellite capabilities have dramatically increased the bandwidth that can be passed through an individual satellite, with modern satellites often now supporting tens, hundreds, and even thousands of individual beams down to the earth.”
That’s not all. The ARINC-791/792 standards that govern the adaptor plates used to attach SATCOM antennas to aircraft have been improved to provide common specifications for this equipment across manufacturers. These improvements are making it easier for aircraft manufacturers to install SATCOM antennas in the factory. Meanwhile, SATCOM antennas for business aircraft “are driving towards lower cost and more easily installed systems with less impact to the aerodynamic performance or aesthetics of these high-performance aircraft,” Landel said.
Of course, keeping up with such technological advances requires responsiveness and hard work by companies such as Astronics CSC. It also requires product variety, which is why the company now sells modern in-aircraft Wi-Fi 6E distribution networks, a range of single and dual-band satellite modems, turnkey satellite terminals, and SATCOM antenna mounting/protection equipment – because things can get frigid and windy on top of a 787 at 30,000 feet.
Controlling costs for airlines offering SATCOM IFC is another trend high on the industry’s priority list. One way to do this is by maximizing equipment reliability and uptime through smart design and rugged components, Milroy said. To this end, ThinKom’s “ThinAir platform has more than 33million hours of proven service on commercial aircraft, and an enviable MTBF (mean time between failures) record.”
Getting the most performance from an aircraft’s SATCOM link is yet another trend, but it is not an easy one to address. Here’s the problem: “Not only are passengers expecting broadband speeds while flying, but more and more they’re expecting that to be free,” said Milroy. “Of course, nothing in life is free, which means we need to do everything we can to deliver the most efficient satellite communications network available, helping to reduce costs for airlines and network operators. Thankfully, the high spectral efficiency of ThinKom’s VICTS solution allows providers to squeeze more bits into each link.”
Ever-Changing Space Tech
If all of these trends aren’t enough for aviation SATCOM antenna makers to cope with, SATCOM technology itself is becoming more diverse as satellite manufacturers and operators find new ways to connect from space. The downside: It’s up to the antenna makers to deal with the fallout of these innovations.
“We’re seeing a strong push into multi-orbit solutions, with non-geostationary constellations entering service,” said Milroy. “As access to more and more satellite constellations is becoming available, there’s a need for more and more terminals to be interoperable — to work on different frequency bands, different orbits, with different types of constellations.”
This progress puts ThinKom into a difficult position. Although they want to support as many satellite systems as possible, it is economically unwise to support them all, especially when some are bound not to pan out over time.
“Being a SATCOM antenna manufacturer, we, of course, need to follow the market realistically,” Milroy observed. “So we are developing agnostic, open architecture solutions we believe will support future needs as they appear on the market, rather than waiting to see what the market demands and hoping to catch up.”
The same dilemma is facing Astronics CSC. “There are a variety of satellite, network, and technology promises being offered, all with various time frames and different levels of maturity,” said Landel. “Establishing approaches for IFC equipment that provides for agnostic network operation, commonality, and future-proof abilities to grow are required.”
To cope with the pace of change, Astronics has developed and demonstrated solutions to various emerging technologies over the past five years. “Leveraging our extensive experience with existing technologies and relationships with major satellite networks, Astronics products provide a future-proofed path to deploying these emerging technologies,” Landel said.
One thing is certain. The demand for constant, consistent connectivity in aircraft is bound to keep growing, and become more difficult to provision as 4K and other bandwidth-hungry applications become commonplace to users. This will compel satellite makers to find more pathways to move these signals around, and aviation SATCOM antenna makers with even more service/technical demands to address.
To satisfy all of these demands successfully, “the next generation of SATCOM solutions will need to address multi-frequency, multi-orbit, multi-link networks seamlessly,” said Milroy. “We feel especially bullish on the development of solutions using the significant untapped bandwidth in both Q-band and V-band over the next decade, while still maintaining support for the Ku-band and Ka-band systems that drive the in-flight connectivity world today.”
“Now multi-frequency capability is complex and comes with additional hardware and weight requirements,” he added. “But we are confident that ThinKom can continue to maintain its market position as we develop solutions in these areas.”
Astronics also expects continued growth in emerging SATCOM and connectivity technologies, and more challenges to be addressed as these systems come into service. But Bill Milroy isn’t worried. “Working with our partners, Astronics provides agnostic and future-proof solutions to the commercial, business, and government customers that are looking to add or increase the IFC footprint of their aircraft fleets,” he declared. “Whether it be size, thermal, cost, performance, or ease of installation, Astronics’ proven ability to provide the best solution to its customers will support this growth over the next 5-10 years.”
Meanwhile, SmartSky Networks’ Sean Reilly sees this ongoing growth as backing the business case for ATG-connected IFC. As demand for faster connection speeds and more devices being supported per aircraft goes up, adding ground-based connectivity to SATCOM can only improve service to airline and business passengers.
“That’s why we at SmartSky will continue to advance our technology to meet the quantity of devices that will have to be dealt with,” Reilly said. “After all, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got that data throughput to support those different devices in the air.”