The ever-growing demand for passenger connectivity is also driving developments that can be linked to make the aircraft a flying hub. Ian Harbison looks at some recent developments.
By 2027, Airbus expects almost 30,000 aircraft to be equipped for In Flight Connectivity (IFC). It has been working for a number of years to develop a roadmap, with teams defining, developing and demonstrating the connected in-cabin technologies that will be needed. This started in 2018 with a ‘Connected Cabin Experience’ mockup that was exhibited at trade shows, backed up by demonstrations of real technologies on the company’s dedicated A350 Airspace Explorer Flight-Lab test aircraft. It has also produced ‘Vision 2030’, which focuses on the digital future of the cabin experience, and has presented this at various customer workshops to show airlines a glimpse of what they can expect in the future.
At this year’s Aircraft Interiors Expo, Airbus launched Airspace Link HBCplus, the first elements of a real open connected ecosystem.
The first element is the intelligent Core Management Platform (iCMP), which will be available in 2026 on A320 Family aircraft, replacing the current Head end Server Unit (HeSU) FROM Kid Systeme. This will use fibre-optic technology and provides the infrastructure for a digital smart platform enabling data access and management, content hosting (including IFE) and cabin management controls.
Next are the Internet of Things (IoT) services, which will connect the different elements within the cabin, such as overhead bins, galleys, seats and life vests, collecting data that can be combined with different data sources (such as CRM systems, ground operations and suppliers) as input for big-data analysis for the optimisation of ancillary revenues, passenger experience and operational efficiency.
Several components have been tested on the Airspace Explorer Flight-Lab aircraft since 2019, including OLED welcome panels, a digital galley, connected seats (from Stelia in business class, from Recaro in economy class), as well as elements of a connected cargo system.
The Airspace Link App Store is a marketplace for airline customers, with apps being offered from developing partners, airline internal developers and Airbus Services. The first product is the Airspace Link ‘Wireless IFE’ app. developed in partnership by Bluebox, Inflight Dublin and Display Interactive. The launch customer was Titan Airways in 2019 and will be joined this year by Jetstar Airways for its new A321neos, and Condor for its A330neos.
The final element is connectivity and Airbus is looking at satcom and air-to-ground (ATG) solutions. It has already selected Inmarsat Aviation, with its GX Aviation inflight broadband solution, as the first managed services provider (MSP), with more joining soon, while Safran Passenger Innovations (SPI) is the terminal provider and integrator of the low drag ThinKom antenna. Entry into service of the Ka-band satcom solution is planned for 2024, with Ku-band planned to be introduced at a later stage.
The ATG part will probably take longer, even though it offers efficient broadband connectivity without the latency of satcoms. Although the European Aviation Network has been in operation from some years, take up has been slow, with British Airways, Iberia and Aegean Airlines being the only users. However, China may be the place where it makes an impact, as Airbus has just signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with China Mobile (Shanghai) Industrial Research Institute, a subsidiary of China Mobile, to cooperate on industrialization and pilot phase flight route trials for the application of 5G ATG connectivity, covering new service solutions in connected cabin, cabin experience and digitalization.
Initiated and driven by the Airbus China Innovation Centre, the work has now been taken over by Airbus Services. One technical challenge is potential interference risks in C-band with the radio altimeter. After certification, the system operation and business value will be evaluated over Chinese flight routes. The companies will jointly explore business models for airline customers. Airbus has also signed an MoU with China Southern, to jointly define evaluate pilot case system embodiment.
Airspace Link HBCplus will be offered as a Supplier Furnished Equipment line-fit catalogue option and also for retrofit on all Airbus programs.
Also at AIX, Intelsat announced the launch of a new IFC solution for use by airline customers, which features an Electronically Scanned Array (ESA) antenna. This will allow aircraft to communicate with all types of satellite: Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO), Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and Low-Earth Orbit (LEO).
GEO satellites, such as Intelsat’s constellation of Epic satellites as well as the new generation of Software Defined Satellites (SDS) provide higher capacity, redundancy, and coverage, which is important at crowded airline hubs as well busy oceanic corridors. LEO satellites deliver improved performance with some cloud-based productivity applications, quicker browsing and interactive experiences on a global basis. They also provide coverage in Polar regions, adding hours of additional connectivity to intercontinental polar flights.
The new terminal fits a variety of aircraft and mission profiles ranging from the smallest commercial aircraft to international widebody aircraft. Standing just 3.5in high on the fuselage, it reduces drag, fuel burn and carbon emissions. The antenna combines mature ESA technology from Ball Aerospace, with a modular design from design and integration partner Stellar Blu Solutions, that will offer simplified maintenance, access and improved reliability.
Intelsat anticipates a first installation on a CRJ-700 in late 2022, with production installations to occur roughly a year later.
Confirming the Airbus view that connectivity will grow, Intelsat has had a couple of major successes recently. The latest in June, will see its 2Ku satellite connectivity solution being installed on the Airbus production line in Hamburg, Germany, on 30 Airbus A321XLR aircraft of Air Canada. The airline will retrofit the same solution to 15 A321ceos, beginning in early 2023.
In March, it was selected by Alaska Airlines, to provide 2Ku inflight connectivity on 105 of the company’s new fleet of Boeing 737MAX aircraft. The system is already in operation on 105 other aircraft.
In another application of connectivity, but with a more serious intent, June saw easyJet become the first airline partner of the Iris program by Inmarsat and the European Space Agency (ESA), which utilizes the latest generation of satellite technology to modernize air traffic management (ATM).
The program enables real-time collaboration between pilots, air traffic controllers and airline operation centers using secure, high-bandwidth data links to minimize delays, save fuel and reduce environmental impact for airlines, while also improving airspace usage to ease congestion and accommodate future growth.
Powered by Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband-Safety (SB-S) connectivity platform, Iris enables new ATM functionalities such as trajectory-based operations that pinpoint aircraft in four dimensions (latitude, longitude, altitude and time), which will allow the airline to avoid holding patterns, calculate the shortest available routes and optimum altitudes, and benefit from continuous climb and descent pathways. The additional datalink capacity provided by SB-S will also power onboard digital applications such as AI flight profile optimizers and real-time weather applications.
With the support of leading Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs), easyJet will evaluate Iris on up to 11 Airbus A320neos, set to begin flying from November 2022. The aircraft have been fitted with a Light Cockpit Satcom (LCS) solution powered by terminal manufacturer Cobham, which is fully integrated with the Flight Operations & Maintenance Exchanger (FOMAX) developed by Collins and Airbus.
Iris will enter commercial and operational service fully in Europe next year, supporting the Single European Sky’s ATM Research (SESAR) masterplan. It will be the first communication service to benefit from a Pan-European certification from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).