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Inmarsat awaits regulatory standards for flight-data streaming

Inmarsat is awaiting regulatory details on the scope of flight-data streaming but believes its new broadband service will easily be able to support such applications.

The satellite communications company has been validating the SwiftBroadband-Safety service in trials undertaken by Hawaiian Airlines on Boeing 767-300s, using the capability for ACARS transmissions and updating electronic flightbag information.

Hawaiian primarily operates oceanic services, given the location of its hub, which means satcom is a more effective option for data communications. The testing has involved controller-pilot datalink and satellite-based navigation applications.

SwiftBroadband provides an IP-based connection with a far higher data rate – up to 432kb/s – than previous communications channels. Inmarsat says this “big pipe”, carried through a constellation of three I-4 satellites, enables airlines to consider a range of applications for which data-transfer limitations proved prohibitive.

“For a long time both suppliers and airlines were content with meeting the minimum for transoceanic flight,” says Inmarsat aviation strategy vice-president Frederik van Essen, speaking to FlightGlobal at the company’s London headquarters.

“Now they’re more interested in what else they can do with connectivity.”

Van Essen says that freight specialist FedEx has also been involved in a similar trial, which has involved cargo video.

Inmarsat believes the data capability is sufficient to provide streaming of flight-operations data, as a back-up to that stored on the aircraft’s flight recorders.

Van Essen says there is a “good case to be made” for such streaming, with cost of data transmission falling and the shift towards relying on streaming for other routine services.

But he adds that there would not be a need to deluge channels with huge amounts of redundant data.

“Even though the perception is that everything should be streamed in granular detail, it doesn’t need to be that way,” he says. “You don’t need it at maximum granularity.”

Inmarsat is advocating a triggered, cloud-based concept which streams data only in circumstances where an aircraft deviates from its normal flight profile. This would make the process “much more affordable”, says van Essen, stressing that its IP-based system is not single-purpose, and flight-data streaming could run alongside other applications.

Although costs would need to be covered, the business model is still to be finalised, not least because specific regulatory standards are yet to be defined. But Inmarsat says its experience in supporting the global maritime distress and safety system can be transferred to the proposed equivalent for aviation.

“Pieces of infrastructure are largely in place,” says van Essen. “But parameters need to be defined. It’s not something you want to implement on a regional basis, nobody benefits from that in the end.”

High-profile accidents – including the loss of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, the search for which has depended on Inmarsat data – might result in a “faster” push to tracking and flight-data streaming, he suggests.

Airbus has recently reinforced Inmarsat’s efforts towards increased data use by selecting the SwiftBroadband-Safety concept for its A320 and A330 lines. Implementation on the A320 family is particularly notable because the costs and weight of equipment and data services have typically been prohibitive for short-haul operations.

Under the Airbus agreement the airframer will fit the necessary equipment – supplied by Cobham – to aircraft from 2018.

Inmarsat has been working towards a similar agreement with Boeing. Provision of such capabilities on a large proportion of the air transport fleet would underpin a shift towards introducing flight-data streaming, the company believes, and reduce the problems associated with locating and retrieving recorders lost in hostile environments.

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