Astronautics: Connectivity You Can Trust

Avatar for Ben ForrestBen Forrest | January 18, 2022

Estimated reading time 8 minutes, 59 seconds.

On life-saving missions where every minute counts, anything that saves time and reduces the crew’s workload can contribute to success. This is equally true in airborne law enforcement, helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) and search-and-rescue (SAR). 

A special forces and policemen surveillance team in a modern office with large live screens.

If the crew can simply focus on the mission, everyone involved is better served. Pilots can focus on flying; paramedics can focus on medical tasks; law enforcement specialists can focus on policework; and SAR crews can focus on bringing everyone home safely. 

Ancillary tasks add a layer of complexity that can impede success. Crews may need to relay information to a hospital over the radio while flying, or verbally guide ground SAR teams during airborne maneuvers. 

To support these and other use cases, Astronautics, a leading avionics manufacturer based in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, developed its signature air-ground communications system (AGCS) and launched it on multiple mid-sized helicopter platforms in 2020.

“What we have found works very well is the ability to establish more real-time information,” said Josh Berrian, senior program and product strategy manager at Astronautics.

AGCS was initially developed as a forward-fit option for a major original equipment manufacturer (OEM), but was also recently made available as a retrofit option for HEMS, law enforcement, SAR and VIP helicopters.

In the event of a HEMS flight, the AGCS platform continuously streams patient data from onboard medical instruments to a hospital, alleviating the need for crewmembers to convey this information verbally while in flight. As a result, patient data gets to the hospital quickly for review and action. 

The AGCS data stream is updated in real time, as conditions change, allowing hospital staff to prepare for the patient’s arrival, then hit the ground running when the patient reaches the emergency room. 

“We believe our solution will enhance patient care both in the air and on the ground,” said Berrian. “Ultimately, this will aid patients and their medical teams.”

In the case of law enforcement searches and night pursuits, AGCS can live-stream video directly from a helicopter’s forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera to ground crews via tablet or another portable device. This enables the officers on the ground to locate and identify a suspect quickly and accurately, without relying on verbal prompts from the pilot or aircrew. 

“If those tactical officers on the ground had a feed of video from the helicopter, they could very easily pinpoint themselves in location to the suspect, create a safe perimeter around it and enhance their ability to safely apprehend the suspect,” said Berrian.

At the same time, AGCS has useful applications in business aviation and VIP transport, because it provides passengers with high-speed internet access throughout a flight. “They can stay connected and network from point to point,” said Berrian. 

This avoids unnecessary downtime, boosts productivity, and allows VIPs to stay connected — supporting mobile office, email, entertainment and flight status applications. 

AGCS is not the only air-to-ground connectivity system on the market, but it’s arguably the most cost-effective. It provides a pipeline that continuously delivers lifesaving and productivity-enhancing data directly to end consumers. “It also sends data directly from an aircraft to ground crews and the owner/operator, and does not pass through Astronautics first,” noted Berrian. 

“We feel we have won with OEMs because of our core strategy: OEMs and/or the end operator should directly own the data that goes through our system, not Astronautics. In the competitive landscape, it seems to be mostly the case that . . . the data first goes to the supplier of that device, and it then goes to either an OEM or the end operator.”

AGCS from Astronautics hit the market in 2020 and is already in operation with special mission and VIP aircraft around the world. But it’s also ideally suited for OEMs looking to manage their fleets and create a predictive maintenance strategy. 

For example, AGCS enables automatic download of flight and engine data to keep track of maintenance intervals, engine and component performance, fuel consumption and several other metrics that impact performance. AGCS removes the need for a pilot, or maintainer, to physically perform this data transfer. Fleet-wide data collection over time allows OEMs to provide predictive maintenance and trend analysis tools to their operators. Ultimately, this can lead to reductions in maintenance, warranty and insurance costs.

“We give OEMs the tools to establish their own secure ecosystem,” said Berrian. “None of this uses Astronautics’ cloud infrastructure . . . OEMs can construct their own security keys to both the fleet and their ground infrastructure. 

“And from then on, it’s all within the OEM’s control. Astronautics doesn’t have any control over that secure ecosystem. We just give them the tools to be able to construct that.”

AGCS creates a complete air-to-ground data transmission system with these features:

  • Integrated Ethernet switch to support avionics networking;
  • Additional segregated Ethernet ports for mission use;
  • ARINC 429 receive and transmit capability;
  • RS 232, 422 and 485 serial interfaces; and
  • High-speed cellular (3G/4G LTE) and broadband Wi-Fi data transmission. 

This integrated software system enables air-to-ground data exchange via file import/export and messaging applications, as well as supporting onboard tablet or laptop connectivity.

Ultimately, AGCS by Astronautics can be summed up with two simple taglines: “Stay connected everywhere,” and “It’s your data — own it.”

“Those are really the two things we’re trying to do,” said Berrian. “We want to eliminate downtime, and also get the data directly to customers, instead of coming through us.” 

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