*This Editor’s View will appear in the December Edition of ECN.
I’m finally recovering from a serious case of jet lag after returning home from electronica, the world’s leading trade fair for electronic components, systems, and applications. Per usual, the show was enormous, housed at the site of an old airport and nearly impossible to see everything. Having spent a total of 16+ hours in the air and over three days being immersed at an industry event with aerospace being a main topic, I can’t help but wonder—what does the future hold for aircraft as it relates to electronics, and even more specifically—in-flight connectivity?
An aircraft’s payload includes cargo, passengers, flight crew, munitions, electronics, as well as additional equipment depending on the nature of the flight or mission. Electronics used to make up 10 percent of an aircraft’s weight. Today, that number has skyrocketed to 40 percent. With this in mind, what existing electronics in planes might be deemed useless over the next 10 years?
Can you say touchscreen displays? Gone may be the days of seat-bearing screens on planes as fliers may soon transition to a more modern approach. You may have heard the acronym before—BYOD, short for bring your own device, which made its debut in corporate offices across the world. Soon, we may be seeing this same trend take flight on aircraft as technology progresses and planes begin adopting in-flight connectivity via satellite. If aircraft-to-satellite communication becomes mainstream, whereas in-flight connectivity is available to all passengers using their own personal device, on-board screens may become obsolete.
One company in particular that’s pushing the WiFi envelope is SpaceX. Its recent filing with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), requesting permission to operate a giant satellite network that will provide the world with high-speed Internet and function as an alternative to Earth-bound cables and fiber-optics, could change the whole game.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk first announced the project back in January 2015. It consists of 4,425 satellites and costs at least $10 billion. Each satellite, excluding solar panels, will weigh 850 pounds and amount to the size of an average car. Initially, the project will launch 800 satellites into an orbit ranging from 714 to 823 miles above the Earth, which would expand Internet coverage first in the U.S., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Once the first stage proves successful, SpaceX will launch its remaining satellites, including spare aircraft in the event of on-orbit failure, which will remain dormant until needed.
Now, imagine the possibilities. Not only would this increase our connectivity on the ground, it may just do the same for in-air connectivity. Today, the question is not usually will WiFi be available on my flight (as most airlines are now equipped), but rather, how fast are the connections and how spotty will coverage be? To improve coverage and significantly reduce aircraft payloads, airlines could remove the touchscreen displays from the seat backs, enabling WiFi via satellite and encouraging passengers to BYOD.
And so, to answer the question—what does the future hold for aircraft as it relates to electronics and in-flight connectivity—I turn to you, engineers, to show me rather than tell me. Either way, I’ll pack my devices on my next flight—just in case!
Until next time,
P.S. Wishing you a very happy holiday season and a prosperous New Year from your friends at ECN magazine! See you in the new year.
Filed Under: Aerospace + defense