The Need For in Flight Data Streaming

MAGAZINE STORY:  Our client, Star Navigation Systems Group was featured in a story about the need for In Flight Data Streaming in Aviation Week.


Need For Flight-Data Streaming Highlighted, Again

By Graham Warwick
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology
April 07, 2014 

Talk of streaming flight data from aircraft, sparked by the Air France Flight 447 crash into the Atlantic in 2009, has been rekindled by Malaysia Airlines Flight 370’s disappearance over the Indian Ocean. Key to the debate is the availability of equipment that will minimize the cost to airlines.

Systems exist that can downlink flight data at relatively low cost, although their use is limited to smaller carriers that see the safety and fuel-saving benefits of connecting their aircraft, but lack the infrastructure investment of major airlines in data-link communications. That is changing, as more airlines install Iridium satellite communications for safety and operational services, providing a low-cost pipe to the aircraft that can be used for other purposes including data streaming

Beginning in late 2016, Iridium Next replacement satellites will provide a higher-bandwidth pipe, allowing more data to be streamed (see page 48). The next-generation low-Earth-orbit satellites will also introduce another factor to the debate by 2018—space-based automatic dependent surveillance—broadcast (ADS-B), which will be able to track aircraft globally, provided their transponder is on.

Calgary-based Flyht Aerospace Solutions’ Iridium-based voice and data system is on nearly 400 aircraft. The $50,000 Automated Flight Information Reporting System—Afirs 228—provides “out, off, on, in” data for airline operational control via the aircraft communication addressing and reporting system (Acars), as well as customized reporting of flight and maintenance data in real time. The system also can be used for fuel management.

“Major airlines already have Acars across their fleets,” says President Matt Bradley. “Outside of Acars, airlines are flying in the dark, and they see an opportunity to be like the big players. A third group has Acars, but is interested in the capabilities of customized reporting. That is a relatively small group right now.”

Increasing equipage of aircraft for safety and operational services via Iridium rather than the more costly Inmarsat satcom is boosting providers of certified Acars-over-Iridium systems. But Bradley says Flyht is growing because it offers additional capability. “More airlines want Iridium versus expensive Inmarsat. But you can just send Acars, or you can put on Flyht and get Acars-over-Iridium plus added value.”

The additional capabilities include customized maintenance data reporting. An operator of Bombardier Dash 8s needs different information from one with Boeing 737s, Bradley says. Flyht also offers a web-based fuel management program that monitors whether the aircraft is being flown to maximize fuel efficiency, showing lost opportunities in dollar terms. The data are used to improve training, he says.


mbedded logic in the system monitors aircraft data buses for certain events and can be used for real-time flight operations quality assurance. “You can program that logic and embed rules on the aircraft,” Bradley says. Logic can be updated “without visiting the aircraft.” An entire fleet can be done in 2 min. without touching the box, he says.

Toronto-based Star Navigation has a competing system and expects certification shortly for its first customer, a Middle Eastern airline. The company in November announced an order from Egypt’s AlMasria Universal Airlines to equip an Airbus A320 and A321. Return on investment will take just 5-9 months, says CEO Viraf Kapadia; the Star-ADS system’s $50,000 cost is recoverable via benefits from fuel savings, engine monitoring, and flight and maintenance operations quality assurance programs.

Following the AF447 crash, both Flyht and Star participated in trials sending flight data over Iridium for the French accident bureau BEA. Tests demonstrated both alerting—triggered by an event such as an engine roll-back—and streaming. Alerting is triggered automatically and a signal sent immediately, to highlight the aircraft on the airline’s operational control displays. “They may not know what is wrong, but it says ‘Look at us, we need eyes on,’” says Bradley.

Although narrowband, Iridium has enough bandwidth to get the data off the aircraft. “With embedded logic and data compression, on a 64-word-per-sec. bus we can get it all off. With 256- or 518-word-per-sec. buses we would have to choose. Iridium Next will make the pipe bigger, and the choices about data less critical. We will be able to stream it all in real time,” he says.

Both Flyht and Star believe flight-data streaming could be mandated. Iridium, meanwhile, sees space-based ADS-B providing at least a partial solution when fully operational in 2018. Aireon, a joint venture between Iridium, NavCanada and three European air navigation service providers, will supply global tracking of ADS-B transponders via receivers on all 66 Iridium Next low-Earth-orbit satellites. Regulations could emerge to ensure transponders cannot be turned off or that a back-up is in place, says Iridium CEO Matt Desch. “We would never lose an aircraft again.”