Efficiency: The next big thing

In-flight Internet for us little guys

June 1, 2013

Illustration by A.J. Garces

With such rapid advances in technology, big things in avionics seem to come faster and faster. For example, the progression from radio communication to VOR navigation to the Loran era was glacially slow when you compare it to the adoption, in rapid succession, of GPS, glass cockpits, and now datalink (including Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B).

Will the next big thing have to wait until the FAA-mandated transition to ADS-B in 2020? Probably not. What will that next big thing be, anyway? While technology sometimes plays havoc with such predictions, it just might be Internet connectivity in the general aviation cockpit.

And why not? Apple’s iPad tablet in particular has become seemingly ubiquitous in GA cockpits. If you were at Sun ’n Fun, you could have seen the AOPA Debonair Sweepstakes project airplane—with the somewhat smaller, 7-inch-screen iPad mini mounted in the panel. That’s right, in the panel. There are no brackets, no suction cups, no loose wires; of course, the iPad is removable for navigating to your hotel at the destination.

Even the airlines are beginning to use them. Before a recent airline flight to Dallas, the captain proudly said in his PA announcement that he and the first officer were using iPads for navigation instead of paper charts—and he asked if there was a 13-year-old aboard who could show him how to turn on the tablet. (I’m pretty sure he was kidding about the latter.)

Airline pilots like information at their fingertips, just as we do. And the fuel an airline could save by not lugging all those charts back and forth across the country is significant. American Airlines said last fall that providing its pilots with iPads to use as an electronic flight bag would remove 35 pounds of paper from every flight—saving an estimated $1.2 million in annual fuel expenses.

Many airline flights offer Internet connectivity to passengers, for a fee. For the record, the American pilot said he couldn’t use that, and doesn’t yet enjoy GPS location information that would allow him to track his surface progress on an airport taxi diagram—as many GA pilots do regularly.

Interestingly, on an average flight only 5 percent to 10 percent of passengers pony up the fees to surf through the skies, according to a report by Ed Perkins of Tribune Media Services. That can reach 25 percent or more on flights carrying a lot of business travelers. Most U.S. carriers have adopted the ground-based Gogo system, although other systems—including Row 44 and ViaSat—use satellites to transfer data (and Aircell’s Gogo is transitioning to satellites where its ground infrastructure is not available). Gogo said tablets account for most of its 35,000 average daily inflight connectivity sessions, at 35 percent—followed closely by laptops (33 percent) and smartphones (32 percent). Of the tablets used in airliners, the company said, a whopping 84 percent are running Apple’s iOS operating system (so maybe the iPad craze is not limited to pilots).

Two penalties make this kind of equipment impractical for use in smaller GA aircraft, however—cost and weight. One option is Aircell’s Gogo Biz service, suitable for most business jets and many larger turboprops. The equipment lists for about $92,000, not including installation, and weighs about 17 pounds. Phones using the Iridium Communications Inc. network of 66 active satellites are more affordable, although the data rate is only 2,300 to 2,400 bits per second (compression can increase the effective data transfer rate for plain text or HTML files to 10 kilobits per second, which is still a small fraction of what most users see on broadband or smartphones).

Will this equipment ever come down enough in cost and weight to be practical in a four-place, piston aircraft?

“I don’t think you’re going to see purpose-built Internet connections” for piston singles because of the cost and weight issues, said John Uczekaj, president and CEO of Aspen Avionics. Nevertheless, GA may be on the eve of in-flight Internet connectivity. Uczekaj, owner of a Diamond DA40, said that in the western United States and at low altitudes, he sometimes gets Internet connectivity on his iPad from the existing ground-based network.

So while a purpose-built system for small GA aircraft is unlikely, the next generation of ground-based cellphone infrastructure could make connections more available. “As that technology grows, we’ll get it in the airplane—and when that happens, you’ll have innovation. Just look at what’s happened in flight planning. That’s just the beginning.”

Uczekaj said unlocking the Internet in flight for light aircraft will require a connection to the ground—and a gateway device that provides a barrier between uncertified devices and applications, and certified aircraft systems. Aspen’s Connected Panel technology already serves the latter function, providing a wireless link between tablets or smartphones and certified panel-mounted avionics.

Connectivity and open systems—instead of closed systems, which, he said, stifle creativity and innovation—will bring GA into a new era. “I’m a firm believer that’s going to attract people into aviation,” Uczekaj said. “I can’t even dream what’s going to happen next.”

John Zimmerman, vice president of new product development at Sporty’s Pilot Shop, is also excited about the prospects of Internet access in flight. “I think that’s the next big thing, and it will be a revolution,” he said. “It’s also a long way off.”

Five years ago, Internet access was an exotic option on business jets, and today it’s frequently standard, Zimmerman noted, adding that he can receive ground-based 4G data signals pretty reliably at 2,000 feet. “I don’t get it at 10,000,” he said. He compared the potential impact of in-flight Internet on general aviation to GPS. “It doesn’t do anything itself, but it enables a lot. That will change the way we fly.”

What would a successful in-flight Internet product look like for GA? “It needs to weigh five pounds, cost $1,000, and have no subscriptions,” Zimmerman said.

Before you write off that idea, answer this question: Four years ago, did you foresee the iPad—and what it could do for GA pilots?

Email mike.collins@aopa.org.