In the ever-evolving landscape of aviation, one technology has emerged as a game-changer – Airborne Satellite Communications on the Move (COTM). With its ability to provide uninterrupted connectivity for commercial and military aircraft, as well as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), COTM has revolutionized communication capabilities in the skies. This article delves into the significance of COTM, how it empowers both commercial and military sectors, and the exciting possibilities it brings to the future of aviation.
For the last several decades SATCOM has played an increasing role in commercial and military communication and data systems. Nearly every industry relies upon satellite technology in some way — from agriculture to banking to transportation. But the insatiable demand for bandwidth across the globe creates new challenges for future aerospace and defense SATCOM designs, requiring new architectures and system designs.
Airborne Satellite Communications on the Move (COTM) is a technology used to provide satellite communication services to commercial and military aircrafts and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) while they are in motion. This technology is becoming increasingly important as the demand for real-time data and connectivity grows in the aviation industry.
Internet Connectivity on Passenger aircrafts
The future of aviation worldwide is one of significant continuing growth in air travel, air cargo, and private general aviation. Passenger services communications are expected to generate revenue for airlines and service providers. They will require a “critical mass” of users to justify costly avionics installation and operating costs, hence they will need to be broadband services.
However, passenger aircraft remains one of the few places where ubiquitous data connectivity cannot be offered at high throughput, low latency and low cost. Airline and business jet passengers are demanding Internet connectivity as they travel across the globe. A survey by Honeywell revealed that nearly 75% of airline passengers are ready to switch airlines to secure access to a faster and more reliable Internet connection on-board and more than 20% of passengers have already switched their airline for the sake of better in-flight Internet access.
Such demand includes requirements of connectivity for users on aircraft, ships and vehicles (including first responders) that operate at both fixed locations and while in motion. Equally significant is the increasing demand for high bandwidth data access on commercial aircraft for both business jets and major airliners. Airline and business jet passengers are demanding Internet connectivity as they travel across the globe. Until now such high bandwidth data links have been predominantly provided when the aircraft is over land, using a system of ground-based installations to provide the link to the aircraft.
For full transcontinental coverage, SATCOM is the only effective way of providing connectivity with Inmarsat’s L-band coverage, for example. Air carriers are looking to increase data links to the cockpit, while the potential for IoT system monitoring and reporting is requiring high data rate SATCOM platforms with hundreds or even thousands of Mbps data links. In the future, to achieve the required bandwidths, the frequency of operation must move to the Ku-band or Ka-band. New satellites are being launched that support higher frequencies to enable this increase in bandwidth.
For deeper understanding of Aircraft satellite Communications on the Move (COTM) technology and applications please visit: Skyward Connections: Airborne Satellite Communications on the Move (COTM)
Aircraft satellite Communications for Defence and security
Military forces require situational awareness no matter where they’re located. From warfighters in the field, sailors on Navy ships, troops in flight, and decision-makers at central command, everyone must share a common operating picture to accomplish the mission. Yet, that can be significantly challenging when troops are constantly in motion, traveling across land, sea and air.
Mobile satellite communication has already been widely adopted on the ground and at sea, dramatically improving the availability and exchange of data. Now Industry is developing innovative solutions towards the next frontier: airborne mobility. To keep mobile troops connected, military satcom providers have introduced innovative Communications on the Move (COTM) technology. With specialized satellite router antenna equipment and network features, a moving vehicle can be broadband-enabled, capable of supporting voice, data and video connectivity.
Airborne satellite communication enables an expanded view for decision making and an uninterrupted flow of data, whether that involves a military battlefield or a domestic first responder operation. Military aircraft can stream high-definition Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) video to forces on the ground or at other command locations. Airborne command and control, as well as tactical communications, keep everyone informed and ready for action, e.g. delivering real-time information to troops over drop zones and in enemy locations. Commanders in flight can conduct mission planning and will know what’s unfolding at all times through videoconferencing as well as phone and data connectivity – prepared to execute strategic decisions at a moment’s notice.
Airborne satcom is invaluable for security agencies such as Customs and border patrol agents that can gain a wide area view to keep a sharper eye on borders. First responders can monitor emergency situations as they develop, exchanging critical information to improve life-saving operations. Coast Guard can analyze oil spills using aerial footage captured using satellite technology.
The proliferation of UAVs in the defense (and soon the commercial world), has created a new arena of SATCOM links. UAVs face similar challenges. The advanced defense-focused UAVs are required to operate around the globe with remote piloting, possibly from a different continent. These requirements drive a need for high bandwidth datalinks to support video, control, and advanced payload data, potentially saturating the existing communications infrastructure. With commercial UAVs also set to have expanded coverage in the future, global network high bandwidth connectivity will pose the same SATCOM challenges as in commercial aviation.
COTM System Technology
COTM systems enable aircrafts and UAVs to maintain connectivity with the ground and other aircrafts while in flight, allowing for real-time data transmission and communication. This is particularly useful for military operations, where commanders need to have constant situational awareness and the ability to communicate with their units in real-time. In the commercial aviation sector, COTM systems can provide in-flight connectivity to passengers, allowing them to use the internet, make phone calls, and access entertainment services while in the air.
COTM systems typically consist of an antenna, a modem, and a satellite transceiver. The antenna is mounted on the aircraft and is designed to track the satellite and maintain a constant connection. The modem converts data into a format that can be transmitted over the satellite link, while the transceiver sends and receives data to and from the satellite.
In addition to providing connectivity, COTM systems also offer several benefits to aircrafts and UAVs. They can improve flight safety by providing real-time weather updates and allowing pilots to communicate with air traffic controllers in real-time. They can also improve operational efficiency by allowing ground crews to remotely monitor aircraft systems and diagnose issues while the aircraft is in flight.
Overall, COTM technology is a critical component of modern aviation, providing real-time connectivity and data transmission capabilities to commercial and military aircrafts and UAVs.
Interoperability standards in SATCOM for unmanned systems
The interoperability of SATCOM systems is essential for UAS applications. Standards will accelerate battlefield decision-making so data can be collected and used for reliable, rapid deployment operations, focused on delivering what is dubbed E.P.I.C. Speed (Enterprise, Partnerships, Innovation, Culture, and Speed) to protect against persistent, technologically advanced adversaries.
The first key to UAS SATCOM interoperability is open standards for airborne satellite antennas and modems. For UAS applications, the SATCOM terminal modem and antenna must work together closely to transmit geographic location, satellite handoff, beam quality, and other critical data. Long-duration COTM applications like those using aircraft rely on this coordination to ensure successful satellite beam switching while the aircraft moves.
The Open Antenna to Modem Interface Protocol (Open-AMIP) development process, initiated by equipment manufacturers in 2006, represents progress in creating best-in-class airborne solutions. The DoD has started to adopt commercial Open-AMIP antenna control units, improving SATCOM resilience for COTM as well as providing the best available technology for an enterprise-wide SATCOM architecture. This standard can maximize the interoperability DoD and OSD have outlined for UAS and deliver much-needed operational advantages in today’s contested airborne battlespace.
A second important portion is standardized mechanical interfaces for SATCOM terminals on UASs. Thousands of aircraft worldwide will add airborne SATCOM terminals in the coming decade, creating the need for more open standards for the mechanical interfaces. UAS platforms will require this same technical coordination. Aircraft industry suppliers are working with SATCOM terminal manufacturers to set new standards to simplify and streamline adoption of high-data rate SATCOM. This includes ARINC and other standards that define how to architect and interconnect software and electrical interfaces.
Environmental standards must be defined as well to ensure airborne SATCOM equipment can overcome hurdles ranging from extreme operating temperature, high shock and vibration, to extremely low EMI profile, lightning immunity and other safety and security challenges. The third piece of this UAS SATCOM puzzle is network interoperability: SATCOM interoperability for UAS also requires network considerations to support efficient information sharing and flexible mission objectives. According to the Army’s future UAS strategy, the overarching objective is to synchronize UAS equipment with the human and networking elements. Commonality and an open-architecture systems approach are fundamental to the Army’s UAS strategy. Open design enables potential control and integration of multiple platforms simultaneously, even across operational domains. Open architectures also enable component upgrades to be interchangeable among different platforms.
Standardizing protocols and network connection types will offer significant cost and operational efficiencies by requiring fewer hardware types to operate, maintain, and refresh. This fact applies to the DoD’s approximately 17,000 wideband user terminals managed across 135 designs. The DoD spends an average of $4 billion each year to acquire and sustain wideband satellite communications capabilities, including developing and fielding military satellite systems, contracting for commercial SATCOM services, and acquiring and operating satellite ground terminals.
Meeting Military Security Standards
Security is a top priority for military operations. For mobile remotes on an IP satellite network, this means secure channel activity, control channel information, unit validation, physical security, and data encryption. Militaries requires that the content and size of all user and network link-layer traffic is completely undetectable to adversaries, and all hardware is protected and tamper-evident. They need to be compliant with the highest level of security standards, including NSA-approved TRANSEC, and routers and line cards be designed to meet FIPS 140-2 Level 3 validation.
Recent Systems and technologies
Orbit Communication Systems Ltd., provider of airborne communications and satellite-tracking maritime and ground-station solutions, and Inmarsat Government, provider of global mobile satellite communications and managed network services to the U.S. government, announced an initial order from Inmarsat Government for Orbit’s Multi-Purpose Terminal (MPT) 46WGX.
According to the company, Orbit’s MPT 46WGX is a 46cm (18-inch) modular, multi-role aviation terminal designed to be fully interoperable with military Ka-band systems and optimized for use over Inmarsat’s Global Xpress constellation.
SATCOM data link aboard E-6B Mercury strategic airborne command post
The Boeing E-6 Mercury is an airborne command post and communications relay aircraft based on the Boeing 707-320 passenger jetliner. It conveys instructions from the National Command Authority to Navy nuclear ballistic missile submarines, land-based atomic missiles, and nuclear-armed bombers. The E-6B Mercury is equipped with advanced satellite communications (SATCOM) capabilities through the Multi-Role Tactical Common Data Link (MR-TCDL).
The MR-TCDL provides secure Ku line-of-sight and Ka SATCOM systems for the E-6B aircraft. It includes two Ku line-of-sight channels and one Ka satellite communications channel, along with power conditioning, cooling, electrical, and network distribution equipment.
Additionally, the MR-TCDL interfaces Block II B kits into the existing E-6B avionics architecture. The E-6B provides command and control of U.S. nuclear forces should ground-based control become inoperable. The plane is based on the four-engine Boeing 707 passenger jetliner.
In April 2021, the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command requested Raytheon Collins Aerospace to upgrade the E-6B’s mission computer to a 64-bit Linux-based operating system for increased capability and reduced threat vulnerabilities. Moreover, in 2020, the Navy ordered the installation of the MR-TCDL from Northrop Grumman Mission Systems, enhancing the aircraft’s communication capabilities.
The E-6B Mercury’s advanced SATCOM features and mission computer upgrades enable it to serve as a crucial command and control platform for U.S. nuclear forces, ensuring communication resilience and effectiveness in critical situations.
Iridium’s Low-Earth Orbit satellites for aviation communications
Iridium’s Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite network for aviation communications offers specific advantages for aircraft connectivity. With a constellation of 66 operational space vehicles and nine on-orbit spares, Iridium completed a two-year upgrade of its global communications network, providing improved coverage and capabilities.
The LEO network’s proximity to Earth, at only 476 miles (780 km), allows for pole-to-pole coverage, stronger signals, lower latency, and quicker registration times compared to Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) satellites, which orbit much higher at 22,236 miles (35,786 kilometers).
Iridium’s LEO satellites are particularly well-suited for aircraft communication and tracking devices due to their constant movement at 17,000 mph, ensuring optimal look angles from any aircraft location, and in whatever orientation – high bank turn, straight and level etc. This makes them highly reliable for maintaining connectivity, even during high bank turns or flights through mountainous terrain.
Unlike GEO networks, where obstructions or orientation may disrupt connectivity, Iridium’s LEO network guarantees real-time, low-latency connectivity. For both fixed wing and rotary aircraft, flying mountainous terrain as well as open air space, having a satellite network that is moving at 17,000 mph means that even a supersonic aircraft is relatively stationary compared to the satellites. These advantages have led to over 60,000 aircraft currently utilizing Iridium’s network for seamless and reliable communication, making it a preferred choice in the aviation industry.
CesiumAstro is offering its flat-panel phased array antenna and software-defined radio combo
CesiumAstro, a Texas-based satellite antenna-maker, has entered the in-flight connectivity (IFC) market by offering its flat-panel phased array antenna and software-defined radio combo to air transport manufacturers. The company unveiled its multi-beam active phased array for airborne satellite communications in March 2023. This IFC system is the first of its kind, capable of supporting multiple Ka-band constellations for both commercial and defense markets, providing space-based broadband to airlines and other airborne platforms.
Unlike geosynchronous-orbit (GEO) satellites, CesiumAstro’s active electronically scanned array (AESA) technology utilizes low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites that fly much closer to the Earth. This proximity reduces latency and enables high-bandwidth communication, allowing for services like streaming video, gaming, and dense telematics, similar to terrestrial broadband experiences.
Adapting AESA technology to space-based communications offers advantages such as compact size, making it suitable for smaller LEO satellites that are increasingly being deployed in constellations. Paired with a software-defined radio, AESA’s ability to scan and transmit on multiple frequencies simultaneously enables equipped satellites to provide seamless high bandwidth coverage to static and mobile platforms worldwide.
CesiumAstro’s technology extends beyond aviation and can be utilized in various mobile applications, including satellites, aircraft, drones, ships, ground vehicles, and autonomous vehicles. The combination of on-the-move phased array terminals with space-based counterparts creates a virtuous circle of enhanced connectivity for the company’s customers.
By commercializing advanced phased array technology, CesiumAstro aims to bring cutting-edge connectivity solutions to the aerospace and mobility industries, ushering in a new era of in-flight broadband services and expanded communication possibilities for various mobile platforms.
Global Airborne SATCOM Market
The airborne SATCOM market size is projected to grow from USD 5.4 billion in
2022 to USD 7.3 billion by 2027, at a CAGR of 6.5% from 2022 to 2027. The market is driven by
factors such as increased use of ultra-compact SATCOM terminals for UAVs and need to enhance
The growing fleet of commercial and combat aircraft, increasing long-haul flights and passenger traffic, and demand for customized SATCOM on-the-move solutions are the major factors driving the airborne SATCOM market. Leading SATCOM equipment/system manufacturers are also coming up with advancements in SATCOM equipment used in commercial aircraft, military aircraft, and UAVs.
Modernization of aircraft communication systems is required to increase the safety of aircraft and
minimize flight delays. It also enables improved routing decisions for aircraft, enhanced pilot
communication, and improved efficiency. North America and Europe have been focusing on
modernizing and overhauling their aircraft communication systems by using customized SATCOM on-the-move solutions. Modernization programs involve the incorporation of new technologies and components in aircraft and aviation infrastructure to communicate effectively with air traffic managers, perform multidimensional aircraft tracking, and improve aircraft navigation by generating images of the approaching external topography. Such programs need airborne SATCOM for improved communication capabilities.
Airborne SATCOM can also be installed in the existing fleet as a part of retrofitting or upgrading
activities. For instance, the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) is an airspace
modernization program adopted by European countries to improve their Air Traffic Management
(ATM). This program involves the installation of innovative SATCOM on-the-move solutions to
eliminate inefficiencies associated with European air traffic management. The various programs to modernize aircraft communication systems across the globe are expected to contribute to the
increased demand for airborne SATCOM.
Based on installation type, the commercial segment is expected to lead the market from 2022 to
2027. The growth of this segment can be attributed to the deployment of advanced airborne SATCOM systems across commercial and military applications and increasing demand for new commercial aircraft orders from Asia Pacific and Europe. Frequent upgrades of old aircraft fleet are expected to drive this segment.
Based on application, the commercial segment of the airborne SATCOM market is projected to grow at the highest CAGR during the forecast period. The growth of this segment can be attributed to the increasing demand for enhanced passenger experience. Major airlines such as Alaska Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Delta Airlines, and American Airlines are opting for the latest in-flight entertainment systems to enhance the passenger experience.
Based on application, the government & defense segment is projected to grow from USD 1,747
million in 2022 to USD 2,300 million in 2027 at CAGR of 5.7%. The increased need to provide
advanced situational awareness to armed force for ISR missions and growing aircraft rescue
missions to drive the government & Defense segment.
Based on component, the transceivers segment of the market is projected to grow at the highest CAGR during the forecast period. SATCOM transceivers allow two-way communication using a single device. The invention of transceivers has led to the development of several modern communication technologies such as two-way radios and the Internet.
North America led the airborne SATCOM market in 2019. The market in the region is highly competitive, owing to the presence of a large number of aircraft manufacturers such as Raytheon Company (US), General Dynamics Corporation (US), Honeywell International Inc (US), and Collins Aerospace (US). Increasing passenger traffic, demand for new aircraft, and the rapid replacement of connectivity solutions with advanced ones. Various airlines operating in North America are focusing on upgrading their existing fleet to enhance the passenger travel experience.
The Asia Pacific market is projected to contribute the highest CAGR from 2022 to 2027
The Asia Pacific is projected to grow at highest CAGR of 7.4% in 2022-2027. The growth in this
region is due to increased military spending by the government, modernization of current SATCOM systems, and increased focus on In-flight connectivity services for commercial aircraft are driving this market.
Airborne Satcom Industry
Major players operating in the airborne SATCOM market are Aselsan AS (Turkey), Raytheon Company (US), General Dynamics Corporation (US), Cobham Limited (UK), and Thales Group (France).
Aircraft manufacturers and airlines across the globe are focusing on integrating newer generation airborne platforms to enhance situational awareness and passenger experience. For example, in 2018, Rockwell Collins received a contract worth USD 82.6million from the US Department of Defense (DoD) to supply mobile user objective system (MUOS)-capable airborne radios and ancillaries for DoD platforms including fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, ships, and ground installations.
Aselsan AS is one of the leading players in the airborne SATCOM market. It has a strong domestic presence, with approximately 90% of its revenue being generated in this region. The company offers a wide range of airborne SATCOM products such as antenna subsystems, antenna control subsystems, and airborne satellite modems.
Thales Group is a key player in the aerospace & defense industry. Thales Group operates through the aerospace, transport, defense & security, and other segments. The company manufactures Airborne Compact SATCOM, MALE UAV SATCOM Terminal, Airborne High Capacity SATCOM, and Ultra SATCOM systems for commercial as well as defense applications. In 2019, the French Defense agency awarded a contract to Thales to design and built the next-generation Syracuse 4 satellite communication system. This contract enables the defense forces of France to improvise the SATCOM system in the Charles De Gaulle Aircraft Carrier and the Rafale combat aircraft.
Collins Aerospace has a strong presence in the US, with approximately 71% of its revenue being generated in North America. Collins Aerospace offers SAT-6100 satellite communication systems, SATCOM high gain antennas, high-speed transceivers, and SATCOM intermediate gain antennas. Major clients of Collins Aerospace in the airborne SATCOM market are aircraft manufacturers, airlines, and other aircraft components manufacturers, and maintenance, overhaul providers, and independent distributors. In 2018, Collins Aerospace received the first long-term contract worth USD 82 million from the US Department of Defense (DoD) to supply mobile user objective system-capable airborne radios and ancillaries for DoD platforms.
Cobham Limited is one of the leading providers of unmanned systems for various unmanned platforms. It offers products and services for the commercial, defense, and security sectors. It provides a range of SATCOM products and components to OEMs. These products and services are used in space, aerospace, land, and maritime applications.
In 2019, Kepler Communication and Cobham SATCOM, a market-leading provider in airborne radio and airborne satellite communications, formed a strategic partnership for the adoption of high-capacity satellite data service delivery.
In January 2022, for military and government manned and unmanned aircraft, Eclipse Global Connectivity, Smiths Interconnect, and ST Engineering iDirect collaborated to create an integrated Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (A-ISR).
The mounting of SATCOM terminals on UAVs is a relatively new phenomenon that creates various opportunities for manufacturers to innovate and design ultra-compact SATCOM terminals. For example, Thales has developed a multi-platform SATCOM terminal for small and medium tactical UAVs capable of high-speed data transmission rates using the Ku- and X-bands. The new product, named AVIATOR UAV 200, is the world’s smallest and lightest Inmarsat UAV SATCOM solution. It delivers greater operational flexibility for tactical UAVs in several applications such as border security enforcement, public safety, commercial use, and scientific research. Advanced SATCOM terminals provide government and defense agencies better connectivity, access to beyond-line-of-sight situational data, and live streaming of imagery and video in various applications such as reconnaissance, surveillance, mapping, and infrastructure inspection.
In December 2021, three of Pipistrel’s new aircraft, the fixed-wing Surveyor and both unmanned
Nuuva platforms, the V300 and smaller V20, benefited from a Honeywell innovation in compact
satellite communications technology, which will bring the safety, connectivity and efficiency trusted for decades.
In April 2022, Inmarsat partnered with Unmanned Systems Technology (“UST”) to
demonstrate its expertise in this field. Inmarsat Velaris, the company’s newest product, provides
uncrewed aviation with ubiquitous connectivity and safety services. Velaris will allow unmanned
aircraft to integrate into commercial airspace securely and seamlessly due to the ultra-reliable ELERA L-band satellite network and Inmarsat’s experience as a global leader in air traffic communications.
The Exciting Future of COTM:
The future of COTM is bright and promising, with several exciting advancements on the horizon:
- Advanced AI Integration: AI algorithms will optimize COTM operations, adapting modulation and coding schemes in real-time to optimize network performance.
- Quantum Communication: COTM may leverage quantum communication for ultra-secure data transmission, ensuring protection against cyber threats.
- 5G Integration: Integrating 5G networks with COTM will offer higher data rates and reduced latency, further enhancing communication capabilities.
- Autonomous Aviation: COTM will support the rise of autonomous aircraft and drones, enabling remote piloting and real-time data exchange for autonomous operations.
Airborne Satellite Communications on the Move (COTM) has emerged as a transformative technology, enabling seamless connectivity for both commercial and military aircraft and UAVs. By revolutionizing communication capabilities in the skies, COTM enhances passenger experiences, improves operational efficiency, and empowers military forces with secure and real-time communication. As the technology continues to evolve, the future of COTM holds exciting possibilities for a connected and efficient aviation industry, further revolutionizing how we soar through the skies.
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