Seeking to test a new technology that could soon become the backbone of a high-capacity data network using aircraft-mounted equipment, Airborne Wireless Network transitioned from big Boeing jets to a tried-and-true icon of general aviation, the Cessna 172 Skyhawk.
Airborne Wireless Network aims to create a communications network using a combination of radio frequency transceivers and lasers, creating a 10-gigabit pipeline in the sky using equipment mounted on commercial aircraft that allows signals to be exchanged between aircraft and ground stations.
First, however, the team will test the equipment at lower altitude, with a few more bumps. The Boeing 767 airliner used to prove the concept is “much more stable,” de Mos noted, and “the 172 is much more of a challenge, technologically speaking.”
The technology was patented on Sept. 4, 2001, though the terrorist attacks a week later delayed development. Among the company officers, de Mos’ father, Marius de Mos, who serves as the company’s vice president of technical affairs and development, helped develop the cordless phone, followed by the first aerial phone system, known as Airfone, later GTE Airfone. His son explained the new concept, which was first tested in May 2017 using a pair of Boeings that exchanged messages with a ground station: The key to making it all happen is to create ground-to-air, air-to-air, and air-to-ground links using a free space optic (laser) signal with a supervisory radio frequency signal to form an airborne mesh network.
“You’re pointing two straws at each other and linking them up” at a distance, de Mos said. “The laser (and supervisory radio frequency signal) is what we’re assessing, for the first time, in the 172s.”
The company has hired a pair of Skyhawks from a California flight school for a month, and will operate them under experimental airworthiness certificates to allow for modifications and equipment installation. The company announced FAA approval for that plan on May 30, and plans to conduct the test flights over California’s Central Valley, near Bakersfield.
Airborne Wireless Network plans to offer airlines a portion of the data traffic revenue in exchange for hauling the equipment to altitude, and just flying along as they do, anyway. Olson, who has 36 years of experience in electronic communications, said satellite-based aerial data networks can currently provide about 200 megabits of bandwidth to an individual aircraft, and each passenger gets about a tenth of that at best. Those connections can be unreliable, depending on the location of the aircraft and receiver, and the infrastructure it’s communicating with. Passengers who experience temporary outages of their live television or internet may ask the cabin crew to reset the router, but it’s more often only a matter of waiting for a more favorable location. Olson said an aircraft-based data network (which the company calls the "Infinitus Super Highway") would offer more reliable connections with far greater capacity, not just for passengers and crew. The company also aims to bring broadband internet to remote areas, and help feed the exponentially growing demand for data connections.
“The primary purpose is to provide a wholesale broadband network to the ground,” Olson said. “It starts to address the data crunch that’s inevitable.”
Unlike satellites, which are expensive to launch and impossible to physically maintain after launch, barring a very expensive spacewalk, equipment that takes off and lands every day is infinitely upgradeable, Olson said. Weather can interfere with satellite signals, but the team has that figured out, too, de Mos said: If any given aircraft, which will be sending and receiving multiple streams of data, flies into weather that blocks the laser, the signal can be quickly shifted to another participating aircraft, or to a ground station that is clear of the weather, to continue on its way.
“It kind of introduces a paradigm shift, again, to the industry,” Olson said. de Mos noted that it also offers airlines much more robust data traffic capabilities to facilitate remote, in-flight monitoring of onboard systems. Although GA aircraft are not envisioned to be part of the network once it is deployed, business jets could become end users and tap into the network for vastly higher connection speeds and bandwidth than what is available today.
The plan is to have a production system tested in the next 12 to 18 months, and introduced to the market as soon as possible. First, however, that equipment has a few rides lined up in a pair of Skyhawks, and its creators hope to encounter turbulence.