That stern announcement on commercial flights to turn off your mobile devices before take-off and landing will soon be a thing of the past. New satellite-based systems now enable airplanes to be connected in a way unimaginable just a few years ago.
According to Aviation Today, more than 70 airlines currently offer inflight Wi-Fi and most of the major carriers are upgrading onboard technology to meet consumer demand.
It’s hardly surprising: according to the 2017 annual global Inflight Connectivity Survey, some 61% of passengers see high-quality inflight Wi-Fi availability as more important to them than onboard entertainment.
This trend is reflected 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, approximately 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.
New communications infrastructure
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.
Functions such as formation flight, package delivery and urban air mobility, as well as the digitisation of maintenance and flight operations support services mean that the development of a 21st-century communications system is vital.
“The 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. “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 US universities and key startups.
“The challenge is to deliver a new communications architecture that will be simpler and less costly,” Pasquier explains. “We also intend to deliver a dual satellite conformal terminal capacity that can provide reliable, ubiquitous coverage, with less drag and at a lower cost.”
Improving flight operations
Better connectivity should also make maintenance, repair, and overhaul 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 refuelling, and autonomous or remotely piloted capability, Pasquier says that “Assured Comms” or Ultra Reliable Low Latency Comms will provide the required accuracy better and cheaper than existing approaches.
Better passenger service
Another important part of the demonstrator is to improve the passenger experience by providing an in-flight connection that is as good as a home broadband service.
This can facilitate ancillary services and in-flight 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.
Airbus is also looking at adding servers to aircraft — in partnership with online providers — to bridge any gaps in live data transmission and manage it locally.
Pasquier believes it will be part of a game-changing development in the future of aerospace: “Rather than simply being a connected user, Airbus will become part of the overall global communications network; we will be an end user but also a provider and disseminator of data for others.”