When I heard about this new antenna made with metamaterials, I assumed it was a fancy new artistic design using antennas on antennas to make better antennas. It turns out it’s much more technical than that and it could be the solution we’ve been waiting for to finally replace the crappy internet that passes for inflight WiFi.
Honeywell and some friends are working on a system to bring consistent, high-speed satellite-based internet to planes, but not just for passengers streaming Netflix at 40,000 feet, but for pilots to access critical flight data, and for airlines and manufactures to receive aircraft performance and position information.
Currently, the standard for inflight internet has been ground-based 3G cellular towers that are aimed to the sky instead of down toward your phone. Unfortunately, that archaic setup has both restrictive bandwidth and regional limitations.
Current air-to-ground internet is generally limited to data speeds of around 3 Mbit/s, which is the lowest tier my local DSL company provides. Though this bandwidth can be multiplied by adding additional systems to each aircraft, it requires a complex and heavy installation of equipment. Compounding that is the fact that operating on a network of cell phone towers means potential dropouts as the flight moves from one region to the other, and limited or no service at certain altitudes and locations.
The plan is to eliminate all those issues, and Honeywell has joined forces with Inmarsat and Kymeta to tackle individual aspects of an entirely new system.
Inmarsat has launched its GX Aviation global high-speed broadband satellite network, which is currently flying over the skies to serve Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. In February, the company launched its second satellite which will cover the Americas and Atlantic Ocean Region.
Inmarsat’s new satellites work off the Ka-band frequency, which uses bandwidth more efficiently than current systems. The company also owns and operates the entire global network, not just the satellites, which it hopes will lower costs and increase performance (and dominate the inflight WiFi space).
So with this new network of high speed internet satellites, how does they get the data into the airplane?
Inmarsat’s GX Aviation satellite terminals are made by Honeywell, with its JetWave communications hardware installed on both off-the-line aircraft and as a retrofit system on existing aircraft.
Honeywell recently announced their first highly successful test of its JetWave terminals by streaming video while simultaneously sending large data files to the Inmarsat GX satellite-based aviation network. The test was deemed successful not only because technicians were able to watch YouTube from space while sucking up massive amounts of other data, but because it was using an antenna on the ground at the very edge of the service area.
But getting an accurate antenna alignment on the ground is one thing, aligning to the satellites at mach .9 is another. If you’ve ever watched your satellite TV technician attempt to reset your dish after a thunderstorm, you’ll know that even a stationary connection can be challenging. In order to achieve the optimum data rate, a precise angle and azimuth must be set with the antenna. And here’s where it gets cool.
Normally, a complex system of heavy and complicated motors and gimbals is required to mechanically align an antenna for optimal beam angle. This makes for some obvious weight and aerodynamic disadvantages when bolted to the outside of speeding airplane.
So the missing link between the satellite network and the inflight terminal is an antenna that can maintain a positive connection without an expensive retrofit or raising both weight and drag.
That’s where the third partner comes in. Kymeta makes the aforementioned electromagnetic metamaterial antenna that can acquire, steer, and lock a beam to any satellite, with no moving parts. According to the company, it’s a “software-enabled metamaterial-based electronic beam forming antenna”.
While the technical explication requires a Master’s degree and an overnight read of some complicated white papers, the simple explanation is pretty fascinating.
The metamaterial elements on the antenna are manipulated with an electromagnetic wave. This can activate and deactivate certain cells that adjust the beam angle without the need to physically move the antenna. This technology will let the antenna track satellites throughout the flight without actually rotating, making it a moving antenna that doesn’t need to physically move.
It also means a more efficient form factor and easier installation. Less drag and weight result in lower fuel burn, which is obviously appealing to airlines. And installation is expected to be more simple than previous designs, which will make it available on a wider range of planes, from jumbo jets to smaller private aircraft.
Kymeta thinks the applications are more far reaching, as well, and intends to build systems suited to everything from marine applications to cars.
So why is there such investment in these systems now?
Honeywell recently surveyed some frequent fliers and found that almost half of those questions are disappointed with inconsistent or slow in-flight WiFi (duh). But nine out of 10 would give up an amenity on their flight to have a faster and more consistent wireless connection. With airlines continuing to provide some of the worst consumer experiences on the planet, maybe they can take passengers’s minds off cramped seating and abysmal customer service with some in-flight shopping (RIP SkyMall) or stream of Saturday Night Lights.
Photos: Honeywell and Inmarsat