Iridium broadband goes global

AvatarBy Norm Matheis | October 16, 2020

Estimated reading time 7 minutes, 4 seconds.

Sure. Certain. That’s the message built into the branding and avionics for Iridium Certus, Iridium’s global broadband service, the first new capability activated from the company’s $3-billion Iridium NEXT satellite replacement program.

Launch customers for the Iridium Certus have been identified, with Skytrac targeting delivery by the third quarter of 2021. Skytrac Photo

Satellite communications company Iridium is introducing Iridium Certus, which will have periodic updates over its operational lifespan, initially with the Iridium Certus 350 (352/352 uplink/downlink kilobits per second (kbps)) offering, which will deliver much more capability than the Iridium avionics you know today.

Iridium Certus is all about bandwidth. That’s kind of a fuzzy idea for many of us. A classic comparison is to a highway. Your bandwidth is like a highway, and your data like cars that all travel at the same speed. The more lanes you have on the highway, the more cars can travel at the same time. It’s the same idea for data with broadband: bandwidth determines how fast data can be transferred over time. Bandwidth is the amount of data that can be transferred per second. With Iridium Certus broadband, the increase is advertised as 150-fold.

Your Iridium connection isn’t strictly speaking any faster from however much bandwidth your connection has. Your data is just transferred to you at a faster rate because more data can be sent at the same time.

What does this all mean for the rotorcraft community?

Skytrac Systems, headquartered in Kelowna, British Columbia, is a well-established Canadian player in the satellite-based communications, tracking and data acquisition arena. Skytrac has partnered with Iridium to become a value-added manufacturer (VAM) for Iridium Certus modems. Skytrac takes the modem’s designs from Iridium, modifies them for factors like size, weight and power, and uses them as the basis for satcom terminal avionics hardware capable of installation in helicopters along with a dialer and an antenna, to stream video and transmit other bandwidth-intensive data communications.

There are two distinct product paths offered by Skytrac. The first is through the new-design SDL-350 Satcom avionics system, capable of upload and download speeds of 352 kbps, using Iridium’s 9810 modem. A second lower-cost mid-band upgrade path will also be available for already-deployed Skytrac Iridium hardware. The ISAT-200A-08 using Iridium’s Certus 9770 modem will also be made available, with speeds of 22 kbps (upload) and 88 kbps (download).

According to Jan van der Heul, Skytrac’s vice president of sales, in addition to video streaming, the SDL-350 will be able to offer customers EO/IR image transfer, telemedicine, timely recovery of flight data, large file transfers, graphical weather, Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System, access to the internet at remote locations and other critical communications services.

Consider for a moment the positive impact of adding Iridium Certus avionics and service on an offshore rotorcraft operation, performing remote area targeted surveillance or search and rescue taskings. Current uplink/downlink systems have limited bandwidth and are often restricted to voice communications. Up to now, communications capability was being enhanced in the fixed-wing surveillance and SAR world through the use of the Inmarsat satellite system. In addition to voice transfer, the Inmarsat satellite system allows reliable, high-speed transmission of data and imagery between fitted surveillance aircraft, a surveillance center and client agencies.

Inmarsat hasn’t really been practical for rotorcraft due to the size of the avionics, and cost. You can do air-to-ground transmission and reception of broadcast quality video/data via microwave systems on a helicopter, but that in turn is limited by line-of-sight and the distances between ground receive sites. Now we have the potential to downlink video, including FLIR/Day TV turret imagery, albeit initially low-resolution, and much greater amounts of data, globally using Iridium to support fixed and mobile command centers in their analyses of maritime domain situations and operational decision-making.

Consider, too, the potential benefit for air medical operations, said van der Heul. Today, aviation telemedicine is largely limited to voice call support. However, the availability of Iridium Certus broadband satellite telecommunications in rotorcraft could permit more sophisticated forms of caring for the patient remotely. This could include telemetry, such as vital signs monitoring, pulse, blood pressure, electrocardiogram (ECG), and actual video of the patient undergoing treatment to create a feedback loop while being transported.

Van der Heul said the core capability of Iridium Certus is a truly global broadband data communications system with an estimated uptime of 99.9 percent. He is bullish on making the Skytrac timeline of second or third quarter 2021 for deploying both units, with launch customers identified and ready to go for the third quarter of next year. He’s also keen on the possibilities of the 10-factor increase in bandwidth of the -08 avionics unit upgrade path for approximately 5,000 aircraft with already-fielded Skytrac legacy hardware. These will still include Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calling, weather graphics, flight data recorder (FDR) streaming and some level of image transfer. Van der Heul emphasized that Skytrac wants to be seen as a one-stop-shop for Iridium Certus. Skytrac has an interesting model in that they will also develop, hold and maintain the necessary helicopter supplemental type certificate (STC) approved data. “We will work with the MRO or the operators. Most of our customers like the one-stop-shop,” he said. Skytrac is also an Iridium service provider, so customers will be able to purchase hardware, STC packages, kits and service plans from a single source.

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