More than 130 companies exhibited their wares at the Aircraft Electronics Association (AEA) convention this week in Orlando. However, two caught my eye because their products were intriguing. And quite frankly, my curiosity was piqued because I was compelled to better understand technology unfamiliar to my airline pilot brain.
I had the opportunity to interview SmartSky’s CEO and director, David Helfgott, along with co-founder and president Ryan Stone. David has a far-reaching background in the communications industry, having been the CEO and president of Inmarsat, a UK-based satellite company. Interestingly enough, Ryan began his career in submarines but always had an interest in aviation. He began with business jet management and then discovered that a common complaint was unreliable communication, which was the catalyst for the 2011 creation of SmartSky.
SmartSky is an air-to-ground (ATG) communications network established exclusively for the corporate aviation industry. Most folks, myself included, initially assume that the company is about providing internet to the cabin of a business jet so the owner’s teenage kids can fight off boredom watching their favorite Netflix series…or playing Xbox. Well, yes, that’s true. But wait, there’s more.
With the utilization of 300-plus ground station antenna systems perched atop various shared-use towers throughout the U.S., SmartSky is able to provide not just one-way, but two-way connectivity between the cabin, the aircraft systems, and the cockpit. The airplane is provided its own discrete, virtual private network (VPN) rather than sharing bandwidth with additional airplanes like other in-flight providers.
Passengers have the ability to not only check emails and access the internet, but they can exchange files and data back and forth. Because SmartSky deals with gigabytes of data versus megabytes, applications like Zoom will stream without interruptions and limited latency, notwithstanding direct phone communications—the 5G hardware that operates on the spectrum of bandwidth that doesn’t interfere with radar altimeters is already in place.
Through the Skytelligence platform, the airplane can communicate systems and engine data. Additionally, the cockpit is able to obtain pertinent weather, notice to air missions (NOTAMs), and forecast information. From the same platform, utilizing a program called SmoothSky, graphic, real-time turbulence data is available through the crowdsourcing of participating International Air Transport Association (IATA) airplanes that automatically transmit the information.
Aside from equipment and installation costs, which vary depending upon the aircraft, monthly subscriptions range from $3,500 to $10,000 depending on the data plan selected. For smaller operators, an hourly pricing program is available. SmartSky has a contract with Textron that includes 12 aircraft supplemental type certificates (STCs) for their equipment. Additionally, the company has contracted with North Carolina fractional ownership operator, flyexclusive.
Comms for Smaller Cockpits
The other company that I found interesting was Flightcell. On the AEA exhibit hall floor, I spoke with account manager, Phillip Hutchings. Flightcell offers three separate units of communication equipment that is designed to fit into the smaller cockpit space of corporate aircraft.
The first unit attracted my attention because it seemed to be more sophisticated than what was installed onboard the B-777 I had flown for nine years. The Flightcell SVS (Safety Voice Services) was a standalone box that contained an updatable database of global frequencies. If only for regulatory requirements, the company believes it to be a total replacement for HF (high frequency) radios. Having spent a good portion of my career across the North Atlantic, attempting to understand radio operators and controllers over the annoyance of HF static, I second the motion.
A press of an SVS button will display the desired frequency by facility in alphabetical order. The pilot only has to confirm the entry and the ATC facility is automatically dialed. The FMC on the B-777 provided a similar function for satellite frequencies, but with a more limited data base. A high priority, low priority, and emergency function is built into the SVS.
The Flightcell DZMx unit is a GPS tracking device that provides automatic position updates and can be programmed for other functions in addition to a two-way text-type communication capability. Helicopters acting as firefighting aircraft have programmed the unit to communicate water pick-ups and drops. The DZMx can also transmit aircraft systems and engine monitoring data.
And finally, the Flightcell SmartHUB acts as a flight recorder, accessing mountable cameras, flight data, and audio just like a standard airline-type cockpit voice recorder. The operator can download the data directly to an SD card rather than relying on a third-party platform.
Both SmartSky and Flightcell were proof that innovation and ingenuity is alive and well in the aviation industry.