Getting high-speed satellite-based internet service on to regional jets has proven an uphill battle to date. Options historically included an air-to-ground system that comes up short on capacity or a satellite offering that is too heavy and creates too much drag when mounted on the aircraft. Antenna manufacturer ThinKom hopes its Ka2517 solution can help. The company released details of a study this week confirming its antenna can fly on smaller fuselages without dramatically increasing drag.
The design of the Ka2517 has been driven by lessons learned in the design of several generations of satcom radomes. With each generation the radome shapes have been refined for lower drag, reduced aerodynamic impact on the host aircraft and improved birdstrike resistance. The smaller, lower profile antennas of the Ka2517 have enabled achievement of a new high-water mark in radome design.– David Lednicer, vice president of engineering at Aeromechanical Solutions, Inc.
The study included computer-based simulations against the Boeing 717, Embraer 145 & 175, and the Bombardier CRJ-200 and CRJ-550/700 frames. The drag impact of the Ka2517 on these types topped out at 0.4%, making it a very efficient option for airlines to consider in choosing solutions for their smaller aircraft.
ThinKom has not been shy in hyping the value proposition of its lower profile design, noting that it can deliver a solution today that is similar in drag impact to the much hyped but yet to be delivered electronically steered phased array antennae that are supposed to be the future of the industry. Gogo was convinced early on, signing an exclusive deal for the larger ThinKom solution to deliver its 2Ku solution. And after getting past some troubles with deicing fluid gunking up the works the kit has proven very reliable in service.
Is it time for high-speed wifi on regional jets?
ThinKom is not alone in making a play for the regional jet segment. Incumbent provider Gogo is working on its ATG-NG solution that promises a significant boost in capacity as it takes advantage of greater spectrum available in the unlicensed 2.4 GHz band, layered on top of the company’s proprietary frequency allocation. That solution is expected to fly in a couple years’ time. Upstart SmartSky is also moving towards launch of its high-speed ATG network, though that recently slipped to Q2 2020. The company signed with JSX as its first commercial airline partner and aims to deliver the high-speed offering across the full fleet soon after service launch. Finally, the Inmarsat/Deutsche Telekom European Aviation Network (EAN) delivers a connectivity option in Europe that also depends on ATG capacity to deliver its high performance connections (though it also includes a satellite connection).
All three of these services use much smaller and lighter hardware on the aircraft than a more traditional Ka or Ku-band satellite solution. The caveat is that they also only deliver the high-speed service where a terrestrial network is available and has capacity online. That may be okay for most regional jet operators. As the name implies the planes do not typically stray too far from home. It is not a perfect solution, but it could be sufficient for most flights, especially in the US market where so many of the smaller RJs operate. Or it will be once the next generation solutions from Gogo and SmartSky come online.
In markets where sufficient Ka-band capacity is available today ThinKom hopes the low operating cost impact of the Ka2517 can help convince airlines to commit now for providing that connection to customers.
JetBlue is the largest airline running satellite-based WiFi on a 100-seat jet fleet. The carrier had to work with Viasat and Thales on the E190 version of its implementation to ensure that the antenna met the required performance standards without excessively degrading the aircraft performance. The compromise is a smaller antenna than sits on the A320 family and a radome that looks a little awkward on top. But it works. With the Ka2517 the same fuselage footprint could deliver a much lower profile solution, though only in Ka-band. The current JetBlue kit houses a Ka-band antenna for internet service and a Ku-band antenna for the DirecTV feed. Switching to an IPTV feed could help address that dual band need on board.
ThinKom confirms that the company is still pursuing multiple STC programs with the Ka2517 while noting that it is deployed for use on military aircraft already. This gives it an advantage against the developing market of electronically steered phased-array antennae. While long promised as the low-drag, high performance solution for the aero market those systems mostly remain in development for commercial aircraft. Gilat recently took its model flying on the Honeywell 757 flying test, however. In the mean time the Ka2517 is successfully linking with GEO and MEO satellites and is ready to scale to production volumes.
ThinKom’s larger Ku-band offering flies successfully on planes as small as the A220 (for both Delta Air Lines and Air Canada) but has not yet transitioned to the even smaller regional jet market. The smaller Ka2517 model could help expand the satellite connectivity options in that segment.