The difficulty in retrieving the black box from the Air France 447 flight that disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean on 1 June has presented a powerful argument for installing data streaming on commercial aircraft. Sending real-time flight information via satellite to ground stations would mean that air accident investigators would already have access to comprehensive data, and in the case of the Airbus 330 disaster, this would help investigators immensely in understanding why such a tragedy

Data streaming is already installed on many military aircraft but the cost of such a sophisticated infrastructure needed to manage and process data from tens of thousands of commercial flights a day has so far prevented the use of data streaming on commercial flights. At this year’s Paris Air Show, held between 15-21 June, indications are that this may be about to change.

Some, however, are still sceptical about the technology. France’s chief air disaster investigator Paul-Louis Arslanian says that over the years various studies into data streaming had taken place but while there are arguments both for and against, there are also undeniable costs.

Meanwhile, at the Paris Air Show, US-based Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) vice president civil aviation Dan Elwell said “data streaming is currently technologically possible, but technologically impractical.”

“Data streaming is currently technologically possible, but technologically impractical.”

There are others though, such as Aeromechanical Services (AMS) president Richard Hayden, that have used the air show to promote the fact that they think data streaming is both practical and affordable.

AMS has a proprietary technology called the afirs 220, which acts as a ‘smart’ box capable of being programmed with any number of specific conditions that would trigger a streaming mode for position and flight data recorder (FDR) information.

afirs provides an automated link between onboard avionics, such as global positioning systems and the FDR, and a global satellite network called Iridium that has no coverage gaps anywhere on the globe and a ground-based web server that automatically routes messages to any designated recipient, all within seconds.

The Iridium satellite modem is capable of streaming data to the ground at a rate of 2,400bps from anywhere around the globe. Iridium provides sufficient bandwidth for afirs to send predefined parameters recorded each second by the FDR. When a critical condition is detected, the smart box can automatically switch to emergency mode and start streaming data. Hayden says that compressing the data means that the system is also affordable.

Good to talk

A giant in supplying crash-survivable recording units is L-3 Communications. President of its aviation recorders division Bruce Coffey says that the use of data streaming in conjunction with traditional recording units could provide a ‘belt and suspenders’ approach. Speaking at the Paris Air Show, he also cautioned that although data streaming may be able to supplement black boxes, it will not replace them altogether. “If you’re not able to recover the black boxes, there are going to be a lot of questions that remain unanswered, that should be answered.”

“The Iridium satellite modem is capable of streaming data to the ground at a rate of 2,400bps.”

Suppliers at the show have announced many advances in the ability of passengers and crew to communicate with the ground. One notable development is that EMS Technologies division EMS SATCOM announced that alongside UAE-based Alnair Aerospace, it has been awarded a European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) supplemental type certificate (STC) for the EMS SATCOM’s AMT-3800 high-gain antenna (AMT-3800) and HSD-440 high-speed data terminal. The system provides passengers with worldwide high-speed airborne email, voice, internet and Wi-Fi capabilities at affordable prices.

In addition, Panasonic indicated in Paris that its ‘exConnect’ in-flight entertainment solution would be available from September 2009. The system, which is being trialled, will allow passengers to use their MP3 players and digital cameras or other USB-equipped devices on the aircraft.

The Panasonic product also offers internet access at speeds similar to those found at hotspots on the ground allowing passengers to browse the internet using an existing GlobalConnex satellite system. Together it is promising generous data bandwidth to and from the aircraft, 30-50Mbps from the satellite and 1.5Mbps in the opposite direction.

In-flight competition

Thales is one of Panasonic’s main rivals in the in-flight entertainment sector and used the Paris Air Show to demonstrate its TopSeries system, which is aimed at the single aisle segment. TopSeries uses a wireless network to deliver DVD-quality video to each seat on the airplane. The system also has the ability to enable passengers to access the internet. Qatar Airways announced during the air show that it would be installing TopSeries in its Airbus single-aisle fleet.

Meanwhile, UK-based satellite communications system supplier Cobham has secured a contract to supply high-gain antennas for use on single-aisle and long-range Airbus airliners. The antennas will be fitted to in-production A320-family airplanes pending certification of the configuration.

“The average passenger can look forward to a heightened level of communication in the near future.”

This antenna is able to support the latest Inmarsat services for cabin applications including internet, virtual private networking, email and telephone. Cobham chief executive Allan Cook says the product has stood the tests of lengthy assessments.

“The selection of our high-gain satellite antennas by Airbus, following a rigorous evaluation and selection process, is a further endorsement of our leading edge technology,” says Cook. “It is the smallest in its class, reducing drag and fuel consumption, and consolidates our position as the market leader for satellite communication antennas.”

CMC Electronics of Canada also announced that its CMA-2102SB high-gain antenna had been certified for use on the A380 and A330/340. The new-generation antenna supports Inmarsat Aero-H+, Swift64 and SwiftBroadband services and is intended for installation atop the fuselage. Inmarsat mobile satellite service enables long-range, oceanic communications between pilots and controllers as well as e-mail, SMS messaging and phone-calling services for passengers on some airlines.

As just some of the technologies available, these give a snapshot into the increased level of communication that the average passenger can look forward to getting in the near future, and the heightened level of communication between the aircraft and ground staff. Firms willing to invest now will defy the more usual cautious characteristics of the global downturn but may just come out the black clouds with safe systems, smiling customers and healthy balance sheets.