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When Honeywell Aerospace launched the Aspire satellite communications (satcom) system in 2011, it was focused on fixed-wing aircraft operators. Now, the company wants to attract the same success in the rotorcraft market.
Honeywell received its first helicopter platform supplemental type certificate (STC) for its Aspire 200 satcom system in 2015, and over the past 24 months has completed certification on a range of helicopters across all segments of the market, including the Leonardo AW139, the Airbus AS350, the Bell 429, the Sikorsky UH-60/S-70 family, and a fleet of Mil Mi-8s in Europe.
The company expects to complete installations on the Sikorsky S-92 and S-76 in early 2018 and on the Airbus AS332 later this year. It is also working on a solution for the Bell 412 — the tail boom structure makes antenna placement a challenge — and will be seeking opportunities to certify the Airbus AS365 and the NHIndustries NH90.
“We probably have 15 to 20 systems operating now on helicopters, and we are expecting to do somewhere between 40 and 100 systems this year,” said Mark Goodman, director of cockpit satcom at Honeywell. “As interest grows, we may go down to the smaller, single-engine helicopters, but we’re working from the top down.”
The Aspire satcom system has become a feature for fixed-wing aircraft as commercial, government and business jet aircraft operators seek greater connectivity and higher bandwidth within the cabin and with the ground. Aspire 200 and legacy systems are certified on much of the United States government’s large and midsized aircraft fleet, Goodman noted.
Helicopters, however, presented a greater engineering challenge because of the size of the components, placement of the phased array antenna on the vibrating tail boom, and transmission of data through the rotor blades. But as the individual boxes — the high-speed data unit, the amplifier diplexer, the router, the satcom configuration module, and the antenna — have dramatically reduced in size and weight, placement has become less of an issue.
“Previous generations used a lot of the same technology, but it was four times the size,” Goodman said during a recent tour of Honeywell’s satellite communications headquarters in Ottawa, Ontario. “We really saw a need to move to something smaller and lighter if you are going to enable [operation in] helicopters and smaller aircraft.”
The size and weight of the intermediate and high-gain antennas have also reduced to a point where the installation over the rotor shaft along the top of the boom is “fairly straightforward” and doesn’t affect the overall look or performance of the helicopter, he added.
The recent certification of high data rate (HDR), incorporating long-burst interleaving, has overcome the problem of satellite signal interruption from the rotor blades. This enables connectivity with minimal latency at data speeds between 300 to 350 kilobits per seconds with an intermediate gain antenna, and 500 to 550 kilobits with a high-gain antenna.
HDR solves the signal disruption by duplicating and sending the data at different times. “With periodic blocks you lost data; by spreading it, you are able to recover it,” explained Tim Musclow, chief engineer of satcom at Honeywell.
The Aspire system, which operates on the L-band frequency, is also capitalizing on the new Iridium global constellation of satellites, launched in 2017 and 2018, that is delivering “a quantum leap” in broadband connectivity services — from 2.4 kilobits to up to 350 kilobits and as much as 700 kilobits within the next two years.
Once best known for its temperature control systems, Honeywell has repositioned itself as a leader in connectivity — in aircraft, vehicles, and other systems. For aircraft, the initial applications have centered around cockpit and cabin connectivity — everything from flight planning to basic email and Internet access.
But the introduction of more sensor-driven health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS) has necessitated better onboard processing, exploitation and distribution of data. And that requirement is migrating from the larger transport industry to business jets and individual aircraft operators. Honeywell’s GoDirect information app, for example, has become a mainstay for aircrews, passengers and maintenance providers.
“We have the ability to reach into avionics and mechanical systems portfolio and connect those systems, not just on the aircraft but also on the ground,” Goodman said. “The value is, we’re not just connecting passengers and pilots, now we can improve [the] efficiency of the overall aircraft.
“The market has really opened up. VVIP customers, for example, flying their helicopters from home to the airport to get on an executive jet, now want the same connectivity as their jet.”
Beyond the corporate market, Honeywell also sees enormous opportunities in any segment where beyond visual line of site transmission of video and other data is critical, including military, search-and-rescue, emergency medical services, and law enforcement.
“Law enforcement and first responders are typically reliant on the cellular network for line-of-sight communications, but as soon as the cellular network goes down in a disaster or emergency, they need a have a backup,” he observed.
Aspire, primarily designed and produced in an expanding Ottawa facility of over 300 employees, is at present an after-market solution, retrofitted to a range of aircraft. But as the system takes hold with operators, Honeywell hopes to see it designed into new airframes rather than bolted on. “We are already working with OEMs — there’s lots of interest, but it just takes time,” Goodman said.
The next generation, Aspire 350 and 400, are already on the way.