Internet access at 24,000 feet above the Earth is a dream that is denied to many an air traveler today. In our modern, connected world, disconnecting from the internet feels as bad as disconnecting a part of our brains. On 3 June, Honeywell brought its Connected Aircraft demo airplane to India and demoed a solution to just this problem.
I don’t think I’m alone in planning my content consumption well ahead of any flight. Hard disk? Laptop? Fully loaded phone? Headphones? Check, check, check and check. No flight is possible without these.
Offline entertainment is still not enough, however. Much as I’d enjoy binge-watching Preacher and House of Cards for 17 hours straight, I’d rather be browsing Reddit or scouring YouTube for another video of Angry Ram.
In partnership with Inmarsat and iridium, Honeywell demoed a mechanism for bringing high-speed Wi-Fi to any aircraft hurtling through the skies at high speed. For the purposes of the demo, Honeywell mounted an antenna inside a radome mounted on a test aircraft. The antenna can receive data at a rate of up to 50 Mbps from any of the four Inmarsat satellites in operation around the world. This solution is called GX Aviation.
The test aircraft itself is a modified Boeing 757 aircraft, and it’s rather special in its own right. For a start, the aircraft has an extra pylon mounted on the left of the fuselage, this is for testing engines. The inside is packed to the brim with all sorts of electronics and is devoid of creature comforts, save for about a dozen or so seats clad in weathered leather. Other than the bare essential insulation, everything else inside the aircraft is exposed. Even the air conditioning in most of the aircraft is provided by brass tubes.
Better yet, the cockpit was open and a TV screen provided us a view of the pilot’s control panel. Oh, and we also got to listen on ATC (air traffic controller) conversations via headsets that were conveniently at hand. It was a novel experience, to say the least.
The rest of the space in the aircraft is filled with metal cabinets that can house various items of equipment like servers and modems.
Following a short security briefing and an alarmingly rapid take-off (I’m assuming that this was because the aircraft was very light), we headed out past the shores of Mumbai and established a holding pattern of sorts over the Arabian Sea. This was at 24,000 feet. At about this point, we were asked to turn on our cell phones and connect to the in-flight Wi-Fi.
"You may now unfasten your seatbelts and turn on the Wi-Fi"
For Honeywell’s demo, this process was quite simple, no different from connecting to a router at home. Honeywell’s Sasi Kancharla, Customer Business Leader for Middle East and India, explained that the receiving antenna sent the data to a box near the rear of the aircraft. From this box, the data is routed to what appears to be a router of the type you’d buy off the street.
Browsing the interwebs at 24,000 feet was indeed fun, and it was fast, but I did experience a number of dropouts in-flight. Kancharla tells us that this is because of the way satellite-transmitted internet works and is an inevitable part of the experience.
The signal is beamed down via one of four Inmarsat Global Xpress satellites placed in geostationary orbit above the Earth. The mounted antenna moves to track the satellite. The satellites themselves operate in the Ka-band (20-30 GHz) in “spots”. Each spot is strictly defined by the bandwidth and spectrum available, reducing interference.
If you’re wondering, yes, we ran a speed test and yes, the speeds were almost as incredible as claimed. To be clear, I didn’t run the speed test on my devices (I tried) and a Honeywell engineer had to run it on a laptop that was hooked up to the aircraft. On that laptop, we saw downlink speeds of around 30 Mbps and uplink speeds of about 2 Mbps at a ping of around 580 ms. Considering that we were pinging a satellite that was almost 36,000 km from the surface of the Earth, this is quite commendable. Do note that the radius of the Earth is just 6,371 km. Geostationary satellites orbit at an incredible distance.
While on the aircraft, I streamed many videos on YouTube, spoke to people via Telegram and even attempted a Facebook live. HD video streaming to my phone was flawless. Video and audio transmission from my phone to someone on the ground was painful. The signal kept cutting out and bandwidth was limited (2 Mbps is miniscule).
The entire setup, according to Kancharla, is cheaper and 10-100 times faster than other offerings in the market. Honeywell Aerospace is working with various airlines in India as well as the government to make in-flight Wi-Fi a reality.
Bear in mind that we experienced these speeds on a test aircraft with a handful of people on board. The real-world situation will be very different.
Together with this in-flight Wi-Fi offering, Honeywell Aerospace is offering “Connected Aircraft” solutions designed to improve the operational efficiency of aircraft and ground crew. This also includes all-weather radar for generating accurate, real-time weather maps for the pilots.