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Data link can boost safety and cut costs

Posted 1 October 2018 · Add Comment

Inmarsat’s next-generation SwiftBroadband-Safety (SB-S) service went live in April 2018. But, asks Steve Nichols, what is it and what will it mean for air traffic control?

SB-S offers a global, secure, broadband platform for operations and safety communications for aircraft, based on satellite connectivity using three Inmarsat I-4 and the single Alphasat L-band satellites.
Satellite technology is key because ground-based VHF radio only has a limited range, which means that aircraft flying across oceanic areas can’t use it to keep in touch with air traffic control (ATC).
For years, the only means of communication in remote/oceanic airspace was high frequency (HF) radio, which uses either line-of-sight or the ionosphere to bounce the transmissions to the recipient.
The problem is that HF is highly dependent on the sun. A solar flare can wipe out transmissions for minutes or hours, plus effects related to solar coronal mass ejections can also seriously impede links.
You also have to factor in the time of day, and even the time of year to pick the right frequency for reliable contact.
In days gone by, pilots reported their position to a radio operator who, in turn, relayed the aircraft position report over a telephone line to ATC. While some aircraft still use HF communications, it is slowly being phased out
So SB-S provides a step up from VHF/HF radio communication by using data link communication through satellites.
The service was officially launched at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Safety and Flight Operation Conference in Montreal.
SB-S is the result of years of work by Inmarsat to prove to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) that it can provide reliable satellite-based aircraft communications. SwiftBroadband currently hits the ‘four nines’ reliability figure required. That is, it provides better than 99.99% network availability.
SB-S enables voice and aircraft communications addressing and reporting system/future air navigations systems (ACARS/FANS) data transmissions, when aircraft are flying over oceans, improving safety and efficiency in oceanic airspace.
The system enables the transfer of data messages using Inmarsat’s SBB connectivity via a secure, dedicated “pipe” to the cockpit. The ACARS message is encapsulated into an IP “message”, which is then stripped out on the ground before being fed into the ACARS data network.
Inmarsat says the platform enables a range of value-added applications, allowing airlines to use rich, real-time data to drive decision-making, improve operational efficiency and assure the highest levels of safety in the skies.
According to the company, SB-S can reduce airlines’ fuel costs and CO2 emissions through enabling connected electronic flight bag (EFB) applications, including real-time weather reports, optimised profile descent and trajectory-based operations.
With SB-S, secure access to on-board data can also deliver aircraft health and performance information to the ground in real time, improving predictive maintenance and assisting in quick fault resolution for faster on-the-ground turnaround.
Increased periodic position reporting enables reduced separation minima and will unlock additional airspace capacity to match growing demand, while digital SatVoice capabilities relieve pressure on crowded VHF radio links.
The commercial service introduction follows a successful in-flight evaluation on Hawaiian Airlines’ Boeing 767-300 aircraft and installations on the airline’s entire Airbus A321neo fleet.
SB-S is also in flight evaluations with United Airlines and Shenzhen Airlines, and has been selected by Airbus as a light cockpit satcom (LCS) solution on its A320 and A330 families.
In addition, SB-S received the prestigious 2018 ‘Jane’s ATC Award’ in the technology category.
Captain Mary McMillan, Inmarsat Aviation’s vice president of safety and operational services, said: “With SB-S in commercial service, the aviation industry can now fully realise the benefits of the connected aircraft – driving greater efficiency in airline operations, while leading the way for the future of aviation safety.
“We are excited to see the real-world impact that SB-S will have on aviation efficiency and safety in the months and years to come.”
SB-S will also serve as the platform for Iris, a new programme with the European Space Agency (ESA) that will enable 4D trajectory air traffic management, which is expected over the skies of Europe by 2020.
 

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