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Aircraft mobile satellite communications for Air traffic management and passenger communication

Air transportation has been continuously increasing in the last years up to a number of two billion passengers per year in 2018 and is expected to continue growing to more than eight billion by 2037. However, the commercial aerospace sector has been significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to a dramatic reduction in passenger traffic, in turn affecting aircraft demand.


According to Deloitte research, Commercial air travel is gradually recovering, albeit at a slow pace, with global passenger traffic substantially lower (-70%) in November 2020 compared with a year ago. The continued impact on passenger demand is expected to result in a 61% decline in passenger numbers in 2020, with an expected rebound in 2021 (+56% year over year).


The future of aviation worldwide is one of significant continuing growth in air travel, air cargo, and private general aviation. In parallel with this growth, a significant increase in the supporting information infrastructure will need to occur. The infrastructure will support two primary functions: aviation operational needs (which includes airline operations, air traffic management/air traffic control, flight information services, and crew communications), and passenger services (internet connectivity, voice/data, travel services, etc.). This infrastructure must also enable radical new air traffic management methods, which require a large flow of information between the aircraft, air traffic service providers, and airline operations centers.


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. They will therefore evolve in a
market-driven way, in fits and starts, with successes and failures dependent upon the quality and usefulness of service, customer acceptance, and service cost.  While the quality of service improves and costs are reduced, user demand for on-board communications connectivity will increase as the general public grows accustomed to ubiquitous access to wireless access in flights.


However, passenger aircraft remains one of the few places where ubiquitous data connectivity cannot be offered at high throughput, low latency and low cost. 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.


Civil Aviation Communication requirements

Airline operational needs require major improvements to the communications infrastructure compared to the current system. The strain of increased air travel on the national and global aviation systems is resulting in increasing system congestion, whereby travelers experience
growing delays and cancellations, and airlines suffer significant operating cost impact. To combat this growing congestion, radical new methods of managing air traffic are needed, as well as increased ground facilities (e.g., new runways and increased use of underutilized airports).


Air traffic management and airline operations will become highly collaborative environments. Information such as aircraft location, speed, and flight plans must be provided rapidly and updated continuously.  The new concept called Distributed Air/Ground Traffic Management is required that requires a significant amount of data sharing between the collaborating entities. Up-to-date information on aircraft location, trajectory, speed, and intent must be continuously updated and made available to both ground controllers and nearby aircraft, greatly
increasing the air-to-air and air-to-ground communications load. ”


Traffic information services (TIS), which include the state of the National Airspace System (NAS), neighboring aircraft within a given operational area, and flight information services (FIS), such as current weather and weather forecasts and airport conditions, are vital to efficient operations. TIS and FIS require increased ground-to-air communications. Weather and traffic information must be updated and distributed to all air traffic management entities. Brokering of arrival and departure times between airlines, prioritization of flights within airlines, and national and global traffic flow management will become standard procedures.


Four categories of communications are defined in annex 10 of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) regarding their safety level.

– ATSC: Air Traffic Services Communication (critical). This class regroups communication between pilot and ATC to ensure the safety, speed and efficiency of the flight.
– AOC: Aeronautical Operation Control (critical). “Communication required for the exercise of authority over the initiation, continuation, diversion or termination of flight for safety, regularity and efficiency reasons”. Used by airline companies to communicate with aircraft (e.g. maintenance messages, fuel levels, exact departure and arrival time…).
– AAC: Aeronautical Administrative Control (non-critical). “Communications necessary for the exchange of aeronautical administrative messages” AAC are neither linked to the security nor the efficiency of the flight. A few examples of AAC are information regarding passengers (list of passengers, connections), special cleaning requests, hotel booking for flight attendants…
– APC: Aeronautical Passenger Communication (non-critical). Examples of such communication are VoIP, e-mail, web browsing.


It has to be noted that critical communications follow very stringent international rules defined by ICAO (for example only some dedicated frequency band can be used) and are based on dedicated systems. The latter must meet very specific QoS requirements (transaction time, continuity, availability, integrity). These regulatory constraints does not apply to non-critical communications, even if they may have to meet some requirements according to the applications (e.g. delay for passenger VoIP)


Satellite Communications for aviation communications

This exponential increase may cause a shortage of the radio resources and collapse the Air Traffic Management (ATM) system, on which will rely the safety of billions of future passengers. Current aeronautical communications between the air and ground are primarily in the VHF band (118-137 MHz) which will be unable to provide the required system capacity and coverage. Hybrid information infrastructure architectures, which include satellite communications links as a key component, are being proposed.


It is becoming recognized in the aviation industry that satellite communications will be required to provide the capacity and coverage necessary for a future aviation communications infrastructure. A communications satellite is an artificial satellite that relays and amplifies radio telecommunications signals via a transponder; it creates a communication channel between a source transmitter and a receiver at different locations on Earth. Satellite communications networks consist of user terminals, satellites and a ground network that provides control and interface functions.


The addition of satellite communications links into an information network advantageous because of their inherent properties: economical wide-area broadcast capabilities, large scale geographic coverage including oceanic and remote regions, coverage of all altitudes, lower terrain blockage, and larger available bandwidth at the higher frequencies. Satellite navigation methods (utilizing augmented GPS and other global positioning systems) are a recognized part of future air navigation and air traffic management.


Space-based ADSB receivers

Next generation air traffic management systems are increasingly supported on Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B). Although ADSB is not mandatory yet in all the regions of the world, it is  operational in most of the flying aircrafts. The ADSB system is based on the capability of the aircraft to navigate to a destination (typically using Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) data and barometric altitude), communicate to an air traffic controller, and to participate in cooperative surveillance to air traffic control for separation and situational awareness services.


ADS-B is automatic as it requires no human intervention, and it is dependent on the data coming from the aircraft navigation system. The ADS-B signals are received by the available sensors, which are connected in the ATM network. These sensors have been usually deployed on ground in the proximity of the Air Traffic Controller (ATC). However, as the under-the-horizon transmission is not feasible, ground-based ADS-B receivers cannot accurately receive signals from flights passing over areas without ground stations, such as in the middle of the oceans or in the Arctic regions. As a result, a large part of the airspace still remains unsupervised and the ground stations become congested by the workload they require to process.


For these reasons, during the last years, it is proposed to implement space-based ADSB receivers using a LEO constellation of small satellites which can become part of the complete ATM relay network. In this way is possible to achieve low latency and secure global ADSB coverage. Frequent and reliable ADS-B communication from space allows to improve the efficient use of the aerospace and increase the aircraft security. This is explained by the fact that the aircraft climbing trajectory is optimized for a given security constraints, saving millions of dollars per year in fuel consumption.


However, this comes up with the cost of having an increased amount of data generated which has to be routed towards the control centers. Some specialized companies offer the services of satellite based ADS-B reception and networking. Some examples are SPIRE and Aireon. Both companies provide global air traffic surveillance system using a space-based ADS-B network, and with the help of cloud computing.


Hybrid Communication Architecture

For broadband satellite communications, higher frequency bands are being favored because they have more available spectrum and allow the use of much smaller antennas. Rain attenuation problems occurring at higher frequencies have low impact because most communications operations will occur above the rain. A hybrid communications architecture will emerge that includes both ground-based and space-based communications links, with the space-based links providing the majority of data transfer. In order to achieve minimum cost and foster widespread fleet equipage of satellite communications avionics, current communications functions must begin to share the available infrastructure. In other words, it will not be an option to continue to add more and more antennas and receivers and transmitters to aircraft.


Integration of functions and communications links can result in a reduction of avionics installed on aircraft with greatly increased capability. This will require the development of architectures and methods to ensure the security, reliability, and integrity of flight-critical data in an integrated system that is simultaneously supplying full and open access for passenger services.


Nonetheless, the ever-increasing interest in providing both Internet access and cellular connectivity in the passenger cabin has led to the emergence of in-flight Wireless Fidelity (WiFi) based both on satellite connectivity and on the Gogo Air-to-Ground (A2G) network. However, they suffer from expensive subscription, limited coverage, limited capacity and high end-to-end delay.


INMARSAT provides aeronautical services with a range of AERO terminal types

  • AERO-C is the aeronautical equivalent of the INMARSAT-C station and provides a low-datarate (600 bit/s), store-and-forward messaging and data reporting service for aircraft. AERO-C can be used for weather and flight plan updates, maintenance and fuel requests, and business and personal communications.
  • AERO-H supports multiple simultaneous voice telephony services, Group 3 facsimile at 4.8 kbit/s and real-time, two-way data communications up to 10.5 kbit/s, for passengers, airline operation and administrative data applications, anywhere within the global beam. The equipment comprises a steerable, high-gain antenna and suitable avionics. AERO-H þ is an evolution of AERO-H using the INMARSAT-3 spotbeams to offer voice at 4.8 kbit/s and more robust performance, as well as improved operational costs.
  • AERO-I is designed for short- and medium-haul aircraft and certified by the Civil Aviation Authority for air-traffic management and safety purposes. It offers cockpit and passenger phone and facsimile communications, packet data from 600 bit/s to 4.8 kbit/s, and online access to ground-based information sources and services.
  • AERO-L provides a low-gain aeronautical satellite communications service offering real-time, two-way, air-to-ground data exchange at 600 bit/s. It complies with International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) requirements for safety and air traffic.
  • AERO mini-M is designed for small corporate aircraft and general aviation users, for voice, facsimile and 9.6 kbit/s data. An externally mounted antenna links to a small terminal weighing about 4.5 kg.
  • SWIFT64 is a circuit-mode and packet-mode, aeronautical, high-speed data service to support the full range of 64 kbit/s ISDN-compatible communications and TCP/IP Internet connectivity.Both services have been designed to meet the needs of aircraft passengers, corporate users and the flight deck and are based on technology developed by INMARSAT for land-based services.
    They are designed to take advantage of INMARSAT AERO-H/H þ installations.


Aero Mobile satellite systems and technologies

Ku-band currently dominates the AMSS broadband market. Systems like Panasonic’s eXConnect, Row44 and Yonder provide service to the commercial market while other providers such as Tachyon and Boeing serve the government market. All of these systems use conventional continental-scale wide beams that are leased from Fixed Satellite Service (FSS) providers like Intelsat. The availability of wide beams developed originally for fixed services like video distribution and VSAT services, along with a few purpose-built wide beams over ocean regions, has allowed Ku-band AMSS to develop rapidly.


Recent advancements in high throughput Ku-band satellites will allow commercial Ku-band aeronautical mobile satellite systems (AMSS) to equal or exceed commercial Ka-band AMSS systems on cost and performance. The first example of this is Panasonic’s acquisition of
capacity on Intelsat-29e satellite, the first satellite to use Intelsat’s Epic platform.


Panasonic and Intelsat are collaborating to bring the first high throughput Ku-band AMSS system to market. Intelsat-29e, the first of Intelsat’s Epic platform satellites, includes customized coverage to provide Ku-band AMSS over North America and the North Atlantic. Intelsat-29e uses a combination of spot beams for data service in dense regions and wide beams for video and data service in low density areas. Combining spot beams that are considerably smaller than Inmarsat-5 and wide beams tailored for the aero market allows Panasonic to achieve superior performance and economics.


However, in several years the dominance of Ku-band in the AMSS market will be challenged by forthcoming Ka-band systems, such as Inmarsat-5. These systems use customized satellites with multiple spot beams to offer enhanced performance over conventional wide beam Ku-band.


Inmarsat-5 Global Xpress uses three dedicated satellites, with more than 70 spot beams each, to provide near-global coverage for land, maritime and aeronautical mobile satellites communications. Each beam is approximately 2.1 degrees in diameter. The performance of these Ka-band spot beams is better than that of conventional Ku-band wide beams because the smaller spot beams have higher EIRP and G/T.


Communications research programs have indicated a number of technology developments needed to hasten the implementation of satellite communications for aeronautical applications. Systems or component technologies needed for future aircraft information systems include high-speed flight deck and cabin data network components, data servers, multifunction displays and intelligent routers.


For VHF communications, directional and multifrequency VHF antennas, antennas and receivers with improved interference and adjacent channel rejection, and improved modulation techniques, compression and voice synthesis.


For satellite communication systems, multi-mode radios, efficient modulation and carrier recovery techniques, improved receivers and antennas for Ka-Band, improved antenna pointing and tracking algorithms, and the establishment of mobile standards are needed.


The key problems being addressed are data transmission performance; the need for faster recovery times when the signal is lost due to aircraft turns and banks that exceed the antenna scanning range; interference rejection; and link security.


Research in Antenna Pointing and Tracking Algorithms for managing the operation of phased array antennas for aeronautical satellite communications links. Operation of the Ku Band Mobile Aeronautical SatCom Terminal indicated that significant improvements in antenna pointing (acquiring the maximum satellite signal) and tracking (maintaining the maximum signal during flight maneuvering) were needed.


Global Airborne Satellite Communications market

Airborne SATCOM is widely used by commercial, government, and defense organizations to deliver effective broadband communication services to aircrafts operating at high speeds. Airborne SATCOM are highly flexible systems that meet the operational and maintenance requirements of different aircraft systems such as fixed wings or rotary wings aircraft. Mission & business critical demands for audio, video, and high-speed data services on aerial platforms is fulfilled by broadband communication via satellite, made possible only by airborne SATCOM.


Amid the COVID-19 crisis, the global market for Airborne SATCOM estimated at US$5.9 Billion in the year 2020, is projected to reach a revised size of US$8.2 Billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 4.9% over the analysis period 2020-2027.


Commercial Aircraft, one of the segments analyzed in the report, is projected to record a 5.5% CAGR and reach US$1.9 Billion by the end of the analysis period. After an early analysis of the business implications of the pandemic and its induced economic crisis, growth in the Narrow Body Aircraft segment is readjusted to a revised 5.3% CAGR for the next 7-year period.


Top impacting factors: market scenario analysis, trends, drivers and impact analysis

Rise in long-haul flights and traveller traffic and raise in the number of high-throughput satellites are the major factors propelling the market growth. However, factors such as ultra-compact SATCOM terminals for tactical UAVs and need to improve passenger experience are hampering the market growth.


Airborne SATCOM providers are facing short-term operational issues due to government-imposed lockdown in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. The delays in projects due to supply chain disruption due to COVID-19 outbreak, is draining organizations of their financial resources that will hamper supply & procurement of SATCOM systems by military agencies as well as civil agencies.


The halt of ongoing process of installation or upgradation of SATCOM systems due to lack of workforce globally will take a toll on airborne SATCOM price & demand. Aviation industry is experiencing financial crisis due to travel bans & grounding of airlines owing to the government initiatives in the wake of COVID-19.


The global airborne Ka-band satellite communication (SATCOM) market is experiencing a significant growth due to increasing aircraft fleet globally. Ka-Band SATCOM operates at a frequency range of 26.5 GHz to 40 GHz.


Surge in usage of SATCOM transceiver, increase in demand for integration of newer generation SATCOM, and rise in adoption of customized SATCOM on-the-move solutions are the factors that drive the global airborne Ka-band SATCOM market. However, cybersecurity issues and high cost of satellite services hinder the market growth.


The demand in new aircrafts can be attributed to the deployment of advanced airborne SATCOM systems across commercial & military applications. The growing fleet of commercial & combat aircraft, increasing long-haul flights & passenger traffic increase demand for customized SATCOM on-the-move solutions. Further, the higher frequency of the Ka-band provides a higher data transfer rate, and the lower cost of bandwidth has made it the preferred choice of new entrants in SATCOM market.


For instance, in 2020, Gogo Inflight Internet (in-flight internet service provider headquartered in Illinois, US) unveiled multi-spectrum antenna solution for satellite communication that can cost effectively covert Ku-band antenna into a Ka-band antenna. This multi-spectrum SATCOM solution provides flexibility to integrate latest satellite technology, since many next-generation satellite deployments are found in the Ka-band. Such rise in adoption of customized SATCOM on-the-move solutions is expected to drive the growth of the airborne SATCOM market.



The global airborne SATCOM market is segmented on the basis of platform, component, and application. Based on platform, the airborne SATCOM market is segmented into: Commercial Aircraft, Military Aircraft, Helicopters, and UAVs. Based on component, the airborne SATCOM market is segmented into: SATCOM Terminals, Transceivers, Airborne Radio, Modems & Routers, SATCOM Radomes, and Others. Based on application, the airborne SATCOM market is segmented into: Government & Defense and Commercial.


Wide Body Aircraft Segment to Record 5.1% CAGR

In the global Wide Body Aircraft segment, USA, Canada, Japan, China and Europe will drive the 4.8% CAGR estimated for this segment. These regional markets accounting for a combined market size of US$661.4 Million in the year 2020 will reach a projected size of US$920 Million by the close of the analysis period. China will remain among the fastest growing in this cluster of regional markets. Led by countries such as Australia, India, and South Korea, the market in Asia-Pacific is forecast to reach US$1.1 Billion by the year 2027, while Latin America will expand at a 5.6% CAGR through the analysis period.


Based on the installation, the new installation segment is likely to have a huge demand due to the use of advanced airborne SATCOM systems across commercial and military applications and growing demand for new commercial aircraft orders from Europe and Asia Pacific. Aircraft manufacturers and airlines across the globe are focusing on integrating newer generation airborne platforms to improve situational responsiveness and passenger experience.


The Airborne SATCOM market in the U.S. is estimated at US$1.6 Billion in the year 2020. China, the world’s second largest economy, is forecast to reach a projected market size of US$1.7 Billion by the year 2027 trailing a CAGR of 8% over the analysis period 2020 to 2027. Among the other noteworthy geographic markets are Japan and Canada, each forecast to grow at 2.7% and 3.9% respectively over the 2020-2027 period. Within Europe, Germany is forecast to grow at approximately 3.5% CAGR.


By geography, Asia Pacific is going to have a lucrative growth during the forecast period due to the growth in passenger traffic has resulted in improved demand for new aircraft in the region. The aviation industry is mounting at a significant pace in the Asia Pacific region, due to the rising passenger traffic.




Some of the key players profiled in the Airborne SATCOM Market include Aselsan A.S., Astronics Corporation, Cobham PLC, Collins Aerospace, General Dynamics Corporation, Gilat Satellite Networks, Harris Corporation, Honeywell International Inc., Hughes Network System, Israel Aerospace Industries, Norsat International Inc, Orbit Communication System Ltd, Raytheon Company, Thales Group and Viasat, Inc., among others.


In 2019, Honeywell launched a new SATCOM system for China’s Airline, offering fast and reliable in-flight Wi-Fi connectivity. In 2017, the Australian Defense Force (ADF) awarded a contract worth USD 174 million to Northrop Grumman Corporation to provide the most advanced satellite systems and increase communication coverage, capacity, and connectivity of Australian defense troops.



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