Written for the Airline Passenger Experience Association
APEX Experience Magazine – December 2014/January 2015
The concept for our world-wide geostationary satellite system was first popularized by the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke in 1945. Clarke, the legendary science-fiction writer and futurist, is famously known for saying, “any sufficiency advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Without any doubt, the ability to receive data and television signals via satellite is magical. A string of satellites circle the Earth in a 22,000 mile-high geostationary orbit over the equator, zipping along in tandem with our planet’s rotation so that they appear to be parked over one spot above earth. That’s the satellite dishes you see on balconies and in backyards don’t have to move.
How does the moving aircraft connect, via satellite, to that other magical technology, the internet? There’s a lot of tech involved, and one of the key components is the antenna.
NASA demonstrated In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) over 20 years ago. Now, small, advanced, steerable antennas or new phased-array flat-panel antennas are mounted in low-profile and low-drag housings on top of aircraft fuselages. There’s a wide range of designs and technologies from many manufacturers, including Honeywell, Gogo, Panasonic and Cobham.
Some dishes steer mechanically, and some “steer” electronically. Some designs use multiple dishes in the same housing and some use multiple channels to increase the data throughput. There are systems designed for connecting with established L-, S- and Ku-band satellites, and those using the new Ka-band “birds.” The solutions are varied, as are the needs of airline customers, depending on routes, aircraft, and content requirements.
Connectivity has become a “must”, and IFC technology and antenna systems will need to keep pace as demand for bandwidth and content grows. Maybe we’ll even see antennas integrated into the full length of a plane’s fuselage. But it’s too bad Sir Arthur isn’t around; he’d likely have some great ideas!