Widening the net – connecting rotary aviation

Innovation — 20.05.18 BY Jane Stanbury
 

As the number of rotary aircraft in the sky rises, so have connectivity expectations from passengers and crew. Wifi is a necessity, but safety, tracking, maintenance, and real time imagery are also being served by the new technology.

Thanks to disruptive business models such as Privatefly, SurfAir and Wheels Up, more passengers are flying more hours on turboprop aircraft. EASA’s relaxing of the rules limiting the charter of single engine turboprops has led to a new clutch of operators and passengers maximising the opportunities presented. Global helicopter sales are also steadily increasing with the civil helicopter fleet expanding as emerging markets such as Brazil, China and India drive demand. In the utilitarian market the hydrocarbon industry has been through uncertain times, but new exploration areas, and a rebounding oil price is stimulating usage. Emergency response to a seemingly tidal wave of disasters has also underpinned the need for more lifesaving search and rescue (SAR) operations, along with initial responder medevac movements.

 
 

Rising expectations in rotary connectivity

As the number of rotors in the sky rises, so have expectations from passengers and crew alike, particularly in regard to connectivity. Ian Pearson, international business development manager, Satcom Direct, SD, says, “We’ve worked with military, head of state, and government rotary equipment for some time, but recent demand is coming from executive and utilitarian sectors, particularly emergency responders, fire fighters, medevac, and search and rescue operations. Owners of helicopters, and smaller GA aircraft, want to install voice, tracking, and basic data services.”

Andy King, founder of new helicopter charter platform FLYT adds, “Due to the proliferation of wireless devices and increasing demand for connectivity, wifi is becoming a necessity. We know that operators will increasingly try to differentiate themselves with value-added features supported by connectivity.”

Fixed wing turboprop operators are also joining the fray. Craig Lammiman, sales director for Oriens Aviation, the UK distributor for Pilatus says, “We regularly receive inquiries about aircraft data capabilities. Most passengers just want the ability to make and receive calls, send and receive text, or emails, and use WhatsApp type services.” Passengers want to seamlessly travel from point to point, whether in jet, turboprop, or helicopter, and stay connected all the time. Lammiman adds, “Many new entrepreneurs come from the technology sector, and most trading platforms in the money market are now online or data based, for these passengers, connectivity could be perceived as vital.”

 
 

New era in rotary connectivity

Until recently technical challenges had stalled the delivery of rich data. Weight, size and resilience of antennas and hardware, that are needed to deliver any kind of meaningful connection, were too large for most rotary aircraft. The technology did not exist to deal with the challenge of delivering signals “through” rotor blades. The type of terrain flown, particularly by helicopters, made clear signal delivery difficult, and in remote areas, or over water, at low flying levels, signals didn’t even exist. Add in the cost of delivering data and the rotary market was compelled to stay with traditional communication technology. However, as the digitised aviation network becomes a reality, a new era for rotary connectivity is dawning.

“We are at a turning point with new satellite networks and technology combining with new hardware to enhance rotary connectivity dramatically, by delivering high throughput data at a sensible cost point,” says Pearson. SD has already produced the smallest form factor router on the market, the SD LTE Hub, to serve smaller aircraft. “It was developed with rotary qualification in mind and will happily operate in an unforgiving environment that may be wet, dusty, unpressurised, and vigorously vibrating. Yet it is powerful enough to deliver meaningful connectivity.”

Karina Larsen, vice president partnerships & business development, Honeywell Aerospace, explain that a number of significant changes have enhanced Honeywell’s rotary market support. “Inmarsat deployed the new wave form High Data Rate (HDR), which compensates for the signal breakage caused by the rotors. We developed satcom hardware for helicopters with new antennas, our Aspire™ 200 and HSD400i systems support the HDR communications. The GoDirectÔ software maximises the HDR system dynamically maintaining connectivity at all times, and automatically increases bandwidth based on the users’ mission, so only the data used is paid for.

 
 

Honeywell is committed to the rotary market for the long term. In March it launched the GoDirect Router, its smallest and lightest router yet, with an eye on the rotary sector. “As far as we are concerned we are fulfilling the last mile we’ve been missing. We now offer full fleet functionality if there is the need,” said Larsen.

Safety, tracking, maintenance, and real time imagery are also being served by the new technology. The ability to manage maintenance remotely, particularly in challenging or remote environments enables more efficient fleet use. To better support maintenance Honeywell gives customers the option to decide which maintenance level updates they want pushed via the connectivity system, instead of having machines returning to a home base for installation. “This makes maintenance leaner, more efficient, and effectively reduces the need for training people in the field,” says Larsen. For NGOs, or in emerging markets, this can save considerable time and money and gives greater operational flexibility.

Utilitarian customers welcome access to email and telephony options but also value the safety aspects of connectivity. “Connected users want to make informed decisions. Services such as onscreen moving maps, maintenance monitoring, and weather updates are great for situational awareness. With the right hardware and network users can also take pictures, upload and send them back to base, enabling crucial decisions to be made in real time even in challenging environments.” This can be vital for search and rescue, surveillance, emergency and medical services.

 
 

In parallel to the hardware development the satellite providers are also rallying to the rotary connectivity call. Inmarsat is working with resellers to create attractive packages, whilst Iridium is half way through the renewal of its low earth orbit NEXT satellite constellation. By the end of 2018 this will have 66 satellites delivering Iridium’s unique cross-linked service across the globe. “Our motto is Iridium everywhere, and that is what we genuinely mean,” explains Director and General Manager for Aviation, Mike Hooper.

With the NEXT satellite constellation in place Iridium’s high bandwidth Certus multi-service platform will have the ability to provide new capabilities, which Hooper believes will serve a broader range of customers. “With extended capability we are going to be able to do more. As well as continuing to serve the executive market, the connectivity will further unlock the overall health monitoring for aircraft, so improving safety.”

Certus will also offer more flexibility. “We want to provide the tools for our resellers to expand the market. As long as we do our part, and it enables them to deliver, the industry will keep driving us.” Iridium has taken a risk in the massive investment, but the risk has paid off, and confidence from the partners is growing. Honeywell has just launched the Aspire 150 and 350 satcom services that will provide Iridium Certus services to the rotary market. Choice is important in any sector, and the changing market dynamics and technical advances have kindled the sector’s connectivity revolution. With renewed satellite constellations, flexible pricing, and hardware producers continually innovating, the future for rotary connectivity will ensure wider and more varied usage, that will not only support office in the sky connectivity but will make the sector safer all round.

 
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