The long history of data communications between air and ground has had numerous stops and starts. It’s not new to use digital communications while flying around the globe. That said, it has not been cheap, and traditional systems have evolved only slowly. If we think Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) is quite whizzy. It’s not. It belongs to a Windows 95 generation. Clunky messages and limited applications.
The sluggishness of adoption of digital communications in commercial aviation has been for several reasons. For one, standardised, certified, and maintainable systems and equipment have been expensive. It’s not just the purchase and installation but the connection charges that mount-up.
Unsurprisingly, aircraft operators have moved cautiously unless they can identify an income stream to be developed from airborne communication. That’s one reason why the passengers accessing the internet from their seats can have better connections than the two-crew in the cockpit.
Larger nations’ military flyers don’t have a problem spending money on airborne networking. For them it’s an integral part of being able to operate effectively. In the civil world, each part of the aviation system must make an economic contribution or be essential to safety to make the cut.
The regulatory material applicable to Airborne Communications, Navigation and Surveillance (CS-ACNS) can be found in publications coming from the aviation authorities. This material has the purpose of ensuring a high level of safety and aircraft interoperability. Much of this generally applicable material has evolved slowly over the last 30-years.
Now, it’s good to ask – is this collection of legacy aviation system going to be changed by the new technologies that are rapidly coming on-stream this year? Or are the current mandatory equipage requirements likely to stay the same but be greatly enhanced by cheaper, faster, and lower latency digital connections?
This year, Starlink is offering high-speed, in-flight internet connections with global connectivity. This company is not the only one developing Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite communications. There are technical questions to be asked in respect of safety, performance, and interoperability but it’s a good bet that these new services will very capable and what’s more, not so expensive.
It’s time for airborne communications to step into the internet age.
NOTE: The author was a part of the EUROCAE/RTCA Special Committee 169 that created Minimum Operational Performance Standards for ATC Two-Way Data Link Communications back in the 1990s.
POST 1: Elon Musk’s Starlink Internet Service Coming to US Airlines; Free WiFi (businessinsider.com)
POST 2: With the mandate of VDLM2 we evolve at the pace of a snail. Internet Protocol (IP) Data Link may not be suitable for all uses but there’s a lot more that can be done.