Safety in numbers

How Swift Broadband–Safety’s enhanced data transmission is benefiting passengers and aviation operators alike

Airline passengers would be surprised to hear that cutting-edge technology makes it into the cabin long before it appears in the cockpit. In fact, at the moment, cockpit technology is caught in a bit of timewarp. “Pilots are still using narrowband, but passenger broadband has been operational for a number of years,” explains Inmarsat’s VP of Safety and Operational Services, Captain Mary Macmillan. So while passengers are using social media and doing online shopping, pilots are still on a system that struggles to transmit small amounts of data when a conversation is taking place with air traffic control.

There are very good reasons for this, though. If a passenger can’t send an email or buy something from Amazon, it’s annoying, but no more. But if pilots cannot communicate with the ground or a plane gets hacked, it is rather more serious. And the fact is that the narrowband system, despite its data transmission issues, is more resilient than standard broadband, particularly when it comes to factors such as weather conditions.

This is where a new system – Swift Broadband–Safety (SB–S) – comes in.

Powerful and versatile

A significant development in aviation safety, SB-S can handle multi-channel voice communications and high-speed data. This makes it a huge step forward in flight deck solutions. It’s separate to the passenger network and runs on different satellites, making it more secure, and can provide far richer data to the flight crew in real time. These are just some of the gains that see SB-S setting the benchmark for aviation communications.

Most planes currently use Inmarsat’s Classic Aero. This is the market-leading voice and data safety service and it offers reliable, secure satellite surveillance and communications that meet International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) global flight tracking requirements. The system is used by more than 200 major airlines, jet operators and government agencies and is installed on 95% of wide-body aircraft. When it launched it was revolutionary, says Captain MacMillan, as it enabled communication with air traffic control when out of radio range during cross-ocean flights.

For pilots, SB-S will be as transformative as Classic Aero. Hawaiian Airlines has trialled SB-S and the feedback from its pilots was that the new system’s satellite VoIP feature is a key benefit, as it allows them to hold Air Traffic Control conversations which are as clear and delay-free as talking on the phone. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg: SBS delivers a broad range of benefits in areas as varied as safety, fuel efficiency and maintenance time.

In terms of voice communication, SB-S means that, as well as supporting better sound quality, two members of the flight crew can speak to the ground at once. Crucially, this has no effect on the transmission of other IP-based data coming in and out of the cockpit. Data transmission for other IP based applications will be greatly enhanced too, with speeds up to ten times faster than Classic Aero. 

All the data, all the time

This means, for instance, that real-time information can be provided to the pilot’s electronic flight bag. Over the last five years, tablets such as iPads have largely replaced the bulky flight bags that used to contain paper charts (and weighed up to 40lbs). But pilots still have to load the tablets before they leave and, if there is no broadband on the plane, the information dates quickly.

SB-S means that the pilot’s electronic flight bag can be updated continuously. As a result, planes will be able to change their courses to avoid bad weather as it happens and pilots will be able to adjust altitude to improve fuel efficiency. For passengers this will mean a smoother, faster flight and, for the airlines, it could mean reduced fuel burn and greater customer satisfaction.

Better data works both ways. With SB-S, aircraft health and performance data is sent to the ground in real-time, which makes predictive maintenance easier and turn-arounds faster. It also allows more regular and faster aircraft position reporting. This means that a greater number of planes will be able to fly in the same airspace. IATA has forecast that passenger numbers will rise from 3.3 billion a year (in 2014) to 7.3 billion by 2034 so this is a key consideration.

Better position reporting also means that, should the very worst happen, disappearance is far less likely. The search area will be around a hundred square miles, rather than hundreds of thousands. In a related vein, SB-S also allows the streaming of real-time data from the aircraft to the airline, should the plane go into distress mode – a service that’s been described as a ‘black box in the cloud’. It’s an innovative approach that will prove invaluable to accident investigators if, as was the case with Malaysia Airlines MH370, the physical black box is not recovered. S-BS means never losing that data intelligence.

It’s not just the obvious things either. In terms of the more esoteric possibilities, SB-S could have medical emergency applications. Smartphones and tablet apps could be used to perform remote diagnoses which on-the-ground experts could then advise on. Is a patient’s condition sufficiently serious to merit an emergency landing – and what can be done to treat their condition while the plane is still in the air?

Greatly expanded volumes of information require far better security and all data is encrypted, with cabin data separated from passenger cabin data using different networks –  think of it as a ‘data fortress door’. This means that passenger or other data will not affect the safety-critical cockpit data. 

Like Classic Aero before it, SB-S will be the industry gold standard. It covers the entire world, except the areas immediately around the poles and enjoys 99.9% reliability – the best on the market. Inmarsat owns its network of satellites which means we are not reliant on other operators and our services are designed for inflight connectivity from the ground up. SB-S is also as future-proof as it is possible to be. Unlike other cockpit competitors, it exceeds all international safety standards and Inmarsat is an integral part of regional and global initiatives to define future safety standards and concepts.

SB-S is available through our selected aviation partners who are all aviation satellite specialists. It’s also available on new Boeing and Airbus aircraft.