Forget yesterday’s focus on monitors, cabin management systems (CMS), and cabin accessories like digital device holders and wireless chargers. The buzz in business aircraft cabin electronics this year is the hum of current powering the expanding fleet of Wi-Fi-equipped aircraft, and the excitement behind the software, hardware, and services driving an ever better onboard online experience.
“In-flight connectivity is one of the most in-demand features on today’s business aircraft,” said Dori Henderson, executive director for business aviation and digital solutions at Collins Aerospace.
Now that hunger for connectivity has spread beyond the large and even midsize cabin market. “Wi-Fi has become one of the most important features requested by our customers,” said Tom Aniello, marketing v-p at Pilatus Aircraft, which has added a Wi-Fi option for its PC-12 turboprop single and PC-24 light twinjet.
Meanwhile, next-generation satellite and terrestrial networks now coming online hint that connectivity will dominate business aviation’s cabin electronics realm for some time.
Honeywell, whose JetWave hardware in partnership with Inmarsat’s JetConnex satellite network launched the global airborne highspeed connectivity era in 2017, has developed its new Forge cabin router to bring the service to smaller aircraft. Forge is 70 percent smaller and costs significantly less than earlier Honeywell routers, while software updates add new functionality through Honeywell’s Forge analytics platform, including flight management, cabin connectivity, and predictive maintenance analytics.
The Forge portal is available for customers buying Honeywell services such as flight planning, datalink, cabin systems, and satcom.
Looking ahead, Honeywell engineers are developing technology “to maximize the pipes, the bandwidth, and spectrum,” said John Peterson, Honeywell's v-p and general manager of services and connectivity, promising “exciting products” in 2021.
LuxStream, the high-speed broadband Ku-band satcom network developed by Collins Aerospace in partnership with satellite network operator SES, offers speeds of up to 25 Mbps in the U.S. and 15 Mbps elsewhere, excluding the polar regions. Launched late last year on VistaJet’s Bombardier Globals, LuxStream is now available for retrofit on all Bombardier Globals through STCs developed with Q.C.M. Design Switzerland, as well as the Gulfstream G350, G450, GV/G550 through STCs developed by Van Nuys, California-based Western Jet Aviation. Collins provides the cabin router and KuSAT-2000 satcom terminal, and its ArincDirect unit is the service provider for LuxStream. New York’s Astronics provides LuxStream’s tail-mounted antenna technology.
STCs for the Gulfstream GIV/GIV-SP are also available, according to Collins, with STCs for the Bombardier Challenger 600 series and 850 and Dassault Falcon 7X expected soon. On the CMS front, Collins has added 4K video capability to Venue, with the launch aftermarket monitor installation performed by West Star Aviation.
Viasat’s new Ka-band satcom service, which can provide typical speeds higher than 20 Mbps, in now STC’d for the Gulfstream G650/650ER via installation of Viasat’s Global Aero Terminal 5510. That terminal accesses the ViaSat-1, ViaSat-2, and European Ka-band satellite platform. The 5510 terminal also provides forward compatibility with Viasat’s next-generation ViaSat-3 satellites.
With its more robust capacity, Viasat recently removed connectivity speed limits for business aviation customers of its Ka-band network, said James Person, director of business development and strategy for the satcom operator, and some customers are experiencing speeds of more than 40 Mbps. Meanwhile, Viasat has doubled the size of its maximum service plan, which includes unlimited streaming, to 200 GB per month.
Satcom Direct’s newest Plane Simple antenna is a dual tail-mounted Ka/Ku-band antenna system for midsize and larger business jets available in two variants, one each for Ku- or Ka-band frequencies, both sharing the same two modular, network-agnostic line-replaceable units and wiring. The system architecture, developed in partnership with Germany-based QEST Quantenelektronische Systeme, simplifies installation and provides a future-compatible connectivity system, according to Satcom Direct.
The new antennas will access Intelsat FlexExec (Ku-band) and Inmarsat Jet Connex (Ka-band) satnets for connectivity. The first Ku-band antenna will be available by year-end and STC approval is expected early next year; Ka-band capability will be available later next year. In addition to boosting broadband speeds, the new antenna technology “allows us to capture more data analytics for performance,” said Satcom Direct business aviation president Chris Moore.
The advance of satellite constellations notwithstanding, air-to-ground (ATG) networks still provide benefits, including lower costs and less latency over much of terrestrial North America, and Gogo Business Aviation continues to build on those advantages. Its Avance L5 and L3 ATG Wi-Fi systems, introduced in 2017 and 2018, respectively, are available on a growing number of aircraft models as line-fit factory options and retrofits. Gogo marked its 1,000th L5 in service in August, while more than 450 L3 systems are operating.
Network speeds on the Avance L5 are similar to 4G on the internet, which supports video streaming and other network-intensive activities. The smaller, lower-cost L3—aimed at the light jet and turboprop markets—offers about one-third that speed.
Bombardier Aerospace now offers the L5 on new Learjet 70s and 75s, and as retrofits for in-service Learjet 40s, 45s, 70s, and 75s. Meanwhile, Illinois-based Flightstar received its own STC approval for L5 installations on the same Learjet models.
Duncan Aviation, which already had seven L5 installation approvals, has a new STC for the Cessna Citation X/X+. Duncan also teamed with Gogo on STCs for the new Avance L3 and Avance Smart Cabin System (SCS), which will allow the installation of Avance L3 Wi-Fi or a standalone SCS in more than a dozen aircraft models, including the Gulfstream IV/G450 and Bombardier Challenger 300, 350, 604, 605, and 650.
Pilatus chose the Avance L3 system as an option for new PC-24s and PC-12NGXs.
Gogo also recently lowered the altitude (from 10,000 feet to 3,000 feet agl) from which L5- and L3-equipped aircraft can access their ATG network, which adds 15 to 20 minutes of extra connectivity time for a typical flight, according to Gogo.
Would-be ATG network player SmartSky, beset by delays since its planned 2016 launch, has prevailed in a lawsuit brought by Gogo questioning the validity of its patents. SmartSky’s network has been built out and tested and STCs for installations on multiple aircraft are in hand, but the Research Triangle, North Carolina company missed its last announced launch target in the second quarter.
Meanwhile, already circling some 100 to 600 miles above the earth, coming constellations of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites are preparing to provide global broadband at fiberoptic-like speeds. These include LEO networks from SpaceX, Starlink, OneWeb, Telesat, and Amazon. Telesat satellites developed by Airbus can deliver speeds of more than 400 Mbps, latency of just 40 milliseconds, and seamless beam and satellite handovers, with worldwide coverage.
Iridium’s L-band Next satellite constellation, completed early last year, will provide much higher speeds than the classic Iridium network. Collins is now testing its forthcoming Certus higher-speed satcom service, the Next constellation’s first aviation application, and plans to offer Certus hardware, including two types of antennas, in 2022.
Collins is also developing Certus hardware for smaller aircraft or those that don’t need full broadband internet capability, ranging from light jets and helicopters through transports.