Satellite technology is getting ready to make your next airplane flight a whole lot better.
Once a luxury experience for the well-heeled, airplane travel has become a regular part of life for most of us, at least in the affluent parts of the world. In 2015, people took 3.4 billion airplane trips, up 700% from only 432 million in 1975. People in high-income countries accounted for two out of every three trips.
Affordable air travel is good. Not so good are long, boring flights packed too tight with too little to do. Infuriating delays that ripple through the overburdened system like a bad case of the flu. And occasionally, the terrifying moment when a flight disappears, never to be seen again.
The world’s airlines and air traffic managers have a solution to all these problems – and the solution is satellite.
Staving Off Boredom – and Saving Billions
For better or worse, being connected is central to modern life. The screen rules, whether it is the phone in your pocket or purse, the tablet in your hand or the laptop in your bag.
Not so long ago, however, the screen’s domain ended at the aircraft door. Phones and laptops were switched off for takeoff and landing, and once airborne, there wasn’t much to do with them but play games or catch up on work. But starting in 2009, airlines began installing Wi-Fi aboard their aircraft.
Suddenly, the device in your hand or lap was in touch with the world. The experience, however, left most users frustrated. The systems on board each aircraft communicated with antennas on the ground. That meant they only worked on flights over land. Spotty coverage and slow speeds made it feel like surfing the web on a 10-year-old mobile phone.
Then satellite got into the game, and things changed fast. A new generation of satellites began delivering broadband to airplanes beginning in 2016. They brought multi-megabit speeds into the cabin for everything from email and social media to online shopping. A recent survey by Honeywell Aerospace concluded that two-thirds of airlines passengers are choosing flights that have Wi-Fi on board and are willing to put up with additional hassle, such as early check-in, to get a flight with fast digital speeds.
Wonders from a Magic Box
Delivering high-quality broadband on a fast-moving plane isn’t easy. Satellite-powered Wi-Fi systems did not get rave reviews at first, because connections remained slow and spotty. But innovators like Panasonic Avionics, which has been installing in-flight entertainment technology for decades, also pioneered systems to deliver high-speed Internet access and live television. Panasonic’s 3rd generation platform uses a state-of-the art satellite modem from a Belgian company called Newtec.
What’s a modem? You will never see one on your flight, because it is tucked away in the airplane’s electronics. But it has everything to do with what happens on your device.
Raw speed is one improvement. Clever engineering, as part of a product called Newtec Dialog, doubles the amount of data that can go over a satellite connection.
The Newtec modem also fixes a problem unique to aircraft. Planes travel so fast, moving either toward or away from a satellite, that the signal experiences the Doppler effect. You have experienced it yourself. When a fire engine races by you, you notice that the pitch of the sound suddenly seems to drop as the vehicle passes you. That’s because the speed of the oncoming truck causes the sound waves to reach you faster, and a faster series of sound waves makes a higher note. As it drives away from you, the sound waves are stretched further apart, which makes a lower note.
The same thing happens to a radio signal coming from space. Only, instead of a higher or lower note, the Doppler effect shifts the signal in ways that can corrupt the data it carries. To counteract it, Newtec’s modem performs a kind of digital magic. It tracks, predicts and compensates for the Doppler shift every second, so your data keeps flowing
But that is not the last of its tricks. Early satellite service was spotty for a reason. A fast-moving plane crosses from the beam of one satellite to another in its flight. When that happens, older modems were forced to reset themselves, which interrupted service. The Newtec modem, custom-designed for Panasonic, operates three receivers at once. It uses two receivers to establish a connection with a new satellite beam before breaking the connection with the old one, so that users never notice the switch. The third receiver is used for simultaneous live TV reception on Panasonic’s global satellite network.
A 2016 research report projects that providing connectivity to passengers will generate nearly $5.4 billion in sales by 2025, up from $700 million in 2015. Whether anybody makes money on that service, however, is another matter. Airlines passengers want broadband at an affordable price. Service providers like Panasonic need to keep passengers happy without losing their shirts. It is technology like Newtec Dialog, and advances from dozens of other companies, that will gradually close the gap and make sure onboard Wi-Fi is here to stay.
Lost in Space
Satellites do much more for airline passengers than make flying more fun. When airlines fly over land, air traffic controllers track them using ground-based radar. But two-thirds of our planet is covered with water, and once aircraft head out over the deep blue sea, they pass out of radar range.
If you’re a anxious flyer, you may be troubled by the idea that your airplane, once over the ocean, is literally out of sight. It is not, however, out of mind. Air-traffic controllers substitute good planning for lack of knowledge. They assign aircraft specific routes, speeds and altitudes, and a specific time to enter their route, so that planes maintain a safe distance from each other. The importance of that timing accounts for why transoceanic flights leave on time more often than flights over land.
It is not quite true that nobody knows where your airplane is. The flight crew knows, because they have access to the same GPS satellite navigation data that powers the maps on your mobile phone. Regulations require them to radio their location to air traffic control centers they pass. It all works extremely well most of the time – but flights do sometimes vanish. The most recent and infamous case was Malaysia Airlines flight 370, which disappeared in 2014 while carrying 239 passengers over the Indian Ocean.
Flight 370 was equipped with a tracking technology called ADS-B, which reports position, altitude and speed every 6-12 seconds. Most commercial aircraft carry it today. It can narrow the search area for a downed plane to a little over 100 square miles (260 km2) instead of the 4,500 square-mile (120,000 km2) area that was searched in vain for traces of flight 370
The trouble is that ADS-B only talks to ground-based control centers and other ADS-B equipped aircraft. Once beyond range of land, its signals are lost. New satellite technology, however, is changing all that. Inmarsat, the company founded to bring communication to ships at sea, announced upgrades to its network to support global aircraft tracking, and Qatar Airlines became its first customer in 2017. A new company called Aireon, partnering with the satellite phone company Iridium, will begin offering satellite detection of ADS-B in 2018 – with Malaysia Airlines as its first customer.
The More We Know, the More We Can Do
Technologies like ADS-B are the beginning of a satellite revolution in air-traffic control that will bring amazing improvements to air travel. ADS-B allows each aircraft to tell ground control and other airplanes where it is with extreme accuracy, even when it on the ground and invisible to radar. It is the foundation of a system called NextGen being developed by the US Federal Aviation Administration and similar systems underway in Europe. NextGen turns the air transportation system into a gigantic network, in which each aircraft automatically shares the job of air-traffic control with the controllers on the ground. Better location data means that aircraft can begin flying closer together and squeezing more landings and take-offs into the same runways. It will let airplanes fly more direct routes, lower fuel consumption and reduce delays.
Every flight begins with a briefing about the things keeping you safe, from seat belts and life preservers to inflatable rafts. Today, more and more of those things are digital services delivered by satellite, and you can thank those orbiting assets for keeping you safe, entertained and informed on the way to your destination.
The Newtec Dialog® platform is a scalable and flexible multiservice satellite communications platform that allows satellite service providers to build and adapt their network easily as their business grows. Newtec is a proud supporter of the Better Satellite World campaign. For more information, visit www.newtec.eu
“Air Transport, Passengers Carried,” World Bank 2017. “Will Wi-Fi Change How Airlines Keep Us Entertained Above the Clouds” by Katie Moskvitch, BBC, July 2, 2015. “Five Billion Reasons to Bet on In-Flight Connectivity,” by Jordan Yerman, Airline Passenger Experience, February 12, 2016. “How ATC Tracks Planes Flying Over the Ocean,” by Vic Vector, ThePointsGuy.com, 2015. “Satellite Tracking to Keep tabs on Airliners Over Oceans,” by Joan Lowy, Phys.org, January 19, 2017. “New Air Traffic Surveillance Technology,” by William Richards, Kathleen O’Brien and Dean Miler, Aeromagazine, 2nd quarter, 2010. “Delivering NextGen,” Federal Aviation Administration.