FARNBOROUGH: Satellites offer key communications and navigation apps for civil aviation

by | Jul 12, 2012 | Seradata News, Technology | 1 comment

At a mini-space  conference on “International Market Opportunities in Space”ne at Farnborough, the benefit of satellites to the aeronautical and maritime communications and navigation was emphasised.


Chris Mclaughlin, Commercial Director of Inmarsat, noted his firm’s recent sponsorship of the Volvo Ocean Race and how his organisation’s satellite communications systems had been directly used to monitor progress and even send HD video streams back from journalists “embedded” with the crews.   On Inmarsat’s current plans Mclaughlin noted how the firm awaited the arrival of its Global Xpress service which would offer Inmarsat clients a Ka-band broadband facility giving them a 50Mb/s downlink and a 5Mb/s uplink capability.   


With respect to aeronautical services, Mclaughlin noted that Inmarsat’s gradualist approach would avoid the mistakes of the past (Boeing’s Connexion internet service famously failed to attract enough revenues).  He went on to describe how ‘Blackberry’ data services will be available on British Airways aircraft using their Swift service.   With respect to voice services he added that “Swift broadband is possible but that is tending to be a business jet activity: smaller aircraft which are easier to fit etc.”  McLaughlin emphasised that the real change would come with Global Express which will launch in 2013/14.”   


Having noted that Boeing was constructing the Inmarsat 5 satellites to carry the Global Xpress service, Mclaughlin explained why the firm had booked three Russian-built ILS Protons to launch the satellites.  Apart from getting a very competitive price, Mclaughlin also said that Inmarsat has a preference for not flying with co-payloads due to their potential for co-payloads to cause launch delays.  This effectively ruled out flying on an Ariane 5.


With respect to the limitations of Inmarsat’s own services,  McLaughlin admitted that the polar regions could not receive strong enough signals from Geostationary communications satellites, noting that this latitudinal limit in Inmarsat’s case was at 78 degrees North.  In doing so, he admitted also that the opening up of polar maritime routes (as the icepack melts) and the need for aviation routes across the poles might cause Inmarsat to consider getting a new type of satellite/orbit combination to cover this area.  Having said that McLaughlin said he did not think that were was commercial need to do so yet.


On being questioned whether rain fade affected Inmarsat’s L-Band communications during the Volvo Ocean Race, McLaughlin said it did not and that L-band was resistant to this.  He also indicated that his expectations would be that any rain fade attenuation issues to Inmarsat Global Xpress service would be limited.  “We are very confident in the Ka-band capability”, he said adding.  “And of course we are backed up with L-band”.  In an interview after his presentation, mentioned that rain fade was an issue for Inmarsat’s competitors offering Ku-band services to VSAT s (Very Small Aperture Terminals).  McLaughlin noted dismissively that their “patchwork” service nature often require ship antennas to be repointed according to where a ship was.    


When questioned of what he thought of Avanti, the UK’s other mainline satellite communications firm and theoretically a potential competitor, Mclaughlin  replied:  ” Lovely people, they live across the road, and we fly their satellite.”  “They are an interesting data business and we know that data works.”   McLaughlin noted before impishly adding “We say that David Williams (CEO of Avanti) and his team are inspired enthusiasts.”


It was not just satellite communications services that were discussed during the forum.  With respect to satellite navigation, Ken Ashton, Head of Navigation Architecture of NATS (National Air Traffic Services) noted the potential of the EGNOS (European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service) to boost the accuracy of GPS signals.   Ashton described how the application had been tried out in Alderney very successfully. 


That Channel Island’s runway does not have an ILS system and the new EGNOS based positioning control system now allowed precision approaches to the airport.      Ashton added that such a system would be ideal in offering precision approaches to other non-ILS airports and that even Category 1 ILS airports might be tempted to remove an expensive ILS system from their least used end – noting that this might be used only 20% of the time according to usual headwind direction.   


Research into this technology continues as part of the ESA IRIS programme which is researching satellite-based solution for the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR).   Ashton also noted that while the Egnos system would have the same Category 1 capability as ILS there remained some resistance.  

“The big operators say that they are not interested in the technology but the modern aircraft that are coming through do have the capability” noting that Embraer’s E-jets already have the technology while the Airbus A350 will have.  Ashton noted that this was just the start and that EGNOS and its US, Indian, Russian and Japanese equivalents (WAAS, GAGAN, SDCA, MSAS) might be further developed into new forms of “trajectory management” for continental airspace though he admitted that given the traffic density, this would be a challenge.   


Still EGNOS received a boost this week as on 9 July, an ILS Proton successfully launched hte SES-5 commercial communications satellite.  On board was the first L-Band payload for EGNOS (European Geostationarly Navigation Overlay Service).


On use of personal data, navigation and tracking, Inmarsat’s McLaughlin foresaw further regulation noting that opinion was moving pro-privacy and that politicians know that “there are no votes in going against the mainstream”

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