Insight | Three decades in and the future looks bright for aviation services


Three decades in and the future looks bright for aviation services


As we celebrate 30 years of Inmarsat aviation services, we delve into how innovation and investment in connectivity will lead the industry’s future.

When Inmarsat first entered the aviation industry, satellite communications was vital for cockpit and communications and air traffic management purposes, but there was no place for connectivity in the cabin.  Thirty years on and the full picture of connectivity in the air has developed beyond recognition.

In 2021, there isn’t an area of air travel that isn’t being supported or enhanced by inflight connectivity. From aircraft operations - where connectivity is driving cost-efficiencies and fostering greener aviation - to passenger experience, with inflight broadband keeping travellers connected, informed and entertained as they fly, the industry is getting more connected and digitalised.

Passengers with options

Perhaps the steadiest rise in demand for inflight connectivity has come from the cabin, as the meteoric growth of smartphone use continues. And over the last few decades, the content available on personal devices has evolved at an even more mind-boggling pace.

Passengers can now stay in touch with loved ones via social media, catch up on a television series, watch a live sporting match, play an online game or enjoy some retail therapy – all whilst flying at 30,000 feet. Inmarsat’s extensive global satellite network offers super-fast and reliable connectivity, which enables endless possibilities when it comes to improving passenger experience.

And with the effects of the pandemic forcing the world’s population to rely more on contactless technology, airlines have only accelerated their investment in digital technologies onboard. The number of aircraft with inflight connectivity installed is expected to continue to grow from around 9,000 globally today to 14,000 by 2026. That’s a 10% increase across the board, which would result in 50% of the world’s aircraft being equipped with inflight connectivity in just five years.

Providing this kind of digital content to passengers has resulted in higher take-up rates of onboard connectivity as passengers return to the air. In fact, take-up rates doubled for British Airways as passengers returned to the air over the summer of 2020 when lockdown restrictions eased, which was attributed in part to the airline’s popular inflight magazine going online.

Increased digitalisation critical to rebuilding passenger confidence

Building confidence for the future

This increase in demand for connectivity was backed up by Inmarsat’s Passenger Confidence Tracker, which was the first passenger survey conducted since the pandemic hit. Gathering the opinions of over 9,000 passengers from 12 countries around the world, the survey provided insight around how passengers felt about returning to the air, with eight out of 10 passengers saying that their travel habits will change as a result of COVID-19.

And it seems that connectivity might be part of that change, as a major confidence-booster, with four out of 10 respondents saying that they felt inflight Wi-Fi was more important for enjoying a flight.

Meeting growing demands

In light of continually increasing demand for inflight Wi-Fi, which is especially prevalent over the North American continent, where most airlines offer connectivity, Inmarsat has introduced GX+ North America. This transformational new aviation connectivity solution, designed specifically to meet the needs of North American commercial airlines, was born out of a strategic collaboration with Hughes Network Systems, which is a global leader in broadband satellite networks and services.

The service seamlessly integrates the unrivalled capacity of the Hughes JUPITER™ High-Throughput Satellite (HTS) fleet over the continental United States, with the extensive worldwide coverage and resilience of Inmarsat’s Global Xpress HTS satellite network. This means that GX+ North America offers passengers travelling with North American commercial airlines an unprecedented combination of capacity, speed and reliability, worldwide.

As flights return to full capacity in the future and busy flight routes resume, airport hubs will again be congested and demand for connectivity will skyrocket, so existing systems need to be bolstered. GX+ North America is leading the way, presenting a solution that will meet passenger demand as it grows.

Data-hungry business travellers

Unsurprisingly, the business aviation market has also evolved during the pandemic, with a visible shift in the needs of Principals (clients). Demand has generally increased at a higher rate than commercial aviation, with traffic up in the US and Europe, as well as Asia. More notable however, is the fact that Principals are now flying further and to new destinations.

This has resulted in significantly more data being consumed within business aviation, with a multitude of data-hungry apps in use on these longer fights. Data analysis shows that Netflix, web browsing, network storage and software updates are responsible for most of the data usage, and what’s most important to Principals is having a consistent service that meets their data needs, delivered by Jet ConneX, our gold-standard inflight Wi-Fi solution.

Transformative connected operations

Demand for connectivity isn’t just growing in the cabin either, operational connectivity has become a priority for airlines as profit margins are squeezed and the pressure for sustainable operations increases. Our dedicated IP services for operations have provided an affordable and scalable solution.

SB-S, our award-winning global broadband platform for the flight deck, offers airlines the ability to implement predictive maintenance, which can help airlines to minimise downtime, avoiding costly periods where aircraft are out of action. Applications used to monitor the weather and optimise flight routes also save fuel, so that the combined benefit can result in a significant 1-2% fuel savings per flight.

Making aviation greener

This kind of operational efficiency is also helping to aid more sustainable air travel. Our ground-breaking Iris programme with the European Space Agency (ESA) is a prime example of how a connected aircraft can reduce its impact on the environment.

Iris delivers high bandwidth satellite data link communications for air traffic management using secure IP connectivity to relieve pressure on congested VHF radio links, which are near capacity. Iris enables an aircraft’s location to be pinpointed in four dimensions - latitude, longitude, altitude and time.

Utilising these ‘4D trajectories’, air traffic management can precisely track flights and traffic operations can allow pilots and controllers to calculate the shortest available routes, cruise at optimum altitudes and use continuous climb and descent paths. This will result in minimised flight delays, fuel savings and reduced environment impact. Iris will also bring unprecedented security from cyber threats.

Conscious Air Traffic Management

In other efforts to reduce aviation’s environmental footprint, researchers at the German Aerospace Centre and the University of Reading in the UK are also investigating the use of meteorology and advanced air traffic management systems to deliberately keep aircraft out of regions where contrails form. Contrails are the trails formed in the sky, when water vapour produced by the combustion of fuel in airplane engines condenses upon soot particles or sulfur aerosols in the plane's exhaust.

At certain altitudes and certain times of the day, these contrails reflect infrared energy back onto the Earth, contributing to global warming. If connectivity can be used to keep aircraft out of this zone, it is estimated that the impact of aviation on global warming could be reduced by two thirds.

Altering life as we know it with unmanned aviation

Transformative innovation is also taking place within the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) market. Working with our partners Honeywell Aerospace and Cobham, we are delivering game-changing benefits for the UAV industry, including enabling drones to integrate safely with commercial air traffic, leveraging Inmarsat’s specialty of keeping aircraft safely separated using our safe and secure L-band network.

Providing UAVs with satellite connectivity – via small, lightweight hardware – ensures they can fly Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS), letting operators send their fleet long distances, while also allowing one pilot to operate multiple UAVs remotely at scale, making operations more commercially viable.

Whether it’s a small operator surveying a remote region of crops or a larger operator transporting multi-ton autonomous cargo deliveries, Inmarsat’s satellite connectivity is the critical ingredient and will be the true catalyst for the safe and rapid growth of the commercial UAV market.

Extensive testing has been successful at Cranfield University’s Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre (DARTeC), where Altitude Angel - the world’s leading UTM (Unmanned Traffic Management) technology provider – collaborated with us to develop and deliver advanced flight tracking and management pop-up capability, proving its value for emergency services. Successful flight trials have already taken place and a commercial, industry-focused product is the next stage of development. We could be seeing unmanned taxis in our skies sooner than you may expect.

This kind of travel could transform the way we live to the extent that the introduction of motorised vehicles did over a century ago. And while cargo deliveries are the obvious first step, the wider societal benefits, such as search and rescue operations and medical deliveries to remote areas have already begun.

During the COVID-19 global pandemic, UAV deliveries of personal protective equipment (PPE) and critical supplies has been invaluable. And beyond that, UAVs currently help drive sustainable aviation with green, 100 percent electric power, not only delivering medical supplies but also conducting inspections of critical infrastructure, transporting large cargo shipments and aiding in fire and emergency responses.

A roadmap for the future

With consistent growth in demand for aviation connectivity, it’s important that Inmarsat has a plan to invest in and deliver on our promise of seamless, global, end-to-end connectivity in the future. That robust plan comes in the form of a fully-funded technology roadmap, which lays down when and how we will meet our goals.

With the launch of a further seven satellites by 2023, we will not only be bringing huge extra capacity to our GX Aviation network, but also to our L-band services to support a new generation of advanced capabilities and enhanced global safety services. After 30 years in aviation, we not only understand that the industry has ever-increasing demands for connectivity, we know how to meet those demands now and well into the future.