These past few months, Satcom Direct has been busy building hardware, upgrading facilities and developing new services as Chris Moore, President Business Aviation, reveals
When the Learjet 23, predecessor of the latest Learjet 75 Liberty profiled in this issue, first flew in 1963, there was no public internet and ‘data’ simply meant information. The Falcon 6X, also featured in this issue, will fly for the first time early in 2021. It is an aircraft of the internet, digitally designed and built to connect into a data-driven world. Those two aircraft designs, superficially similar and less than 60 years apart, neatly encapsulate our changing perception of data.
The Learjet 23 design team used data, in the form of numbers and words, in their daily working lives. They called family and friends to speak on the phone, wrote letters and typed reports. The Falcon 6X team also designed their jet using data, but with the intention that it should become a data generator, even a data hub, in its own right. They still contact family and friends, most likely via a mobile device, using voice, messaging, social media or email, relying on their data plan when Wi-Fi isn’t available.
The internet enables us to find, generate, move and store data. In doing so, we express the extent of our access to the internet as ‘data’. A member of the Falcon team finding themselves unable to connect to Snapchat might discover that they had ‘run out of data’. Their access to the internet had been curtailed because their usage of ‘data’, in this case the capacity their ‘data plan’ provided for access to and the movement of ‘data’, had been exceeded. They could no longer access data because they had run out of data.
Is it any surprise then that with business and VIP aircraft better connected than ever before, the means of accessing and moving data have become confused? Enter the folk at SD, whose agnostic approach to connectivity avoids the pitfalls and complexity by addressing the requirements and expectations of the user with the best matched products.
More than a data plan
Founded in 1997 as Satcom Direct, the company quickly realised there was more to aircraft internet connectivity than selling data plans. It has since become a provider of apps and hardware designed to help customers extract every last bit of value from their data. Most recently, that proposition has expanded in collaboration with MySky, but SD has also been busy upgrading its Florida network operations centre (NOC, pronounced ‘knock’) while simultaneously coping through the COVID pandemic.
Chris Moore, President, Business Aviation, notes that while entirely escaping the trials of coronavirus is impossible, SD’s work is in business aviation, government and defence communications and so, unlike those whose offer revolves around commercial flying, SD is weathering the storm. “Our business has been severely affected,” he admits, “but we were in a strong position thanks to our diversity in hardware, software and connectivity, and markets.”
Speaking in late October, Moore expressed concern over various European states beginning to enforce new travel restrictions as infection rates again started to rise, but confirmed: “We’ve really focussed over the past nine months and kept all our support engineering and sales staff; we’ve kept the team intact and concentrated on delivering the data strategy, software and hardware we’ve been promising for several years.”
Part of that hardware delivery process occurred at SD’s major customer event in Orlando. It took place in February, just before the pandemic kicked-off and provided the platform for the company to launch its new Plane Simple antenna series. Available in Ku and Ka versions, the equipment is designed to future-proof terminal installations by standardising the wiring and equipment provisioning. There is also an Iridium Certus unit and a new flat panel antenna under development. “We’ve made some good headway while the business has been a little quieter than we’d like,” Moore notes.
A significant part of that headway has involved upgrading SD’s NOC. Well-known for its large screen, showing data gathered from around the world, it now boasts an even larger, 70 x 10ft display. The screen encapsulates much of SD’s customer-focussed activity, as Moore explains.
“Pilots frequently say that it’s important to ‘stay ahead of the aircraft’ and we do a lot of predictive data analysis so we can do the same. We’ve built support tools around the application interfaces we have with the satellite vendors and our hardware on the aircraft. It’s really data management, which we visualise with our own software. It’s written so that we can monitor network, terminal and infrastructure performance.
“It brings it all together so that our support guys can take the NOC to the next level. It’s becoming almost like an artificial intelligence view of the network. We can visualise an issue very quickly, understand what it is, pinpoint and fix it, often before the customer knows there was a problem. It’s predictive, proactive data management – our support staff actually say ‘we know before you know’, and it’s important to emphasise that they are our most important asset, not the big screen.”
The NOC screen provides a constantly updated network snapshot, based on data in the moment. The view changes with time, but the data behind it is not consumed, instead it is securely stored for future network analysis and other uses. “Data scientists review our data, examine trend analytics, especially on different networks or between geographical areas. We might, for instance, see a number of issues or performance metrics over the UK and we can analyse the trend to help us understand why. Then we talk to the network providers, working in partnership with them to help improve their network to the benefit of our customers.”
The result of this data-driven process and close working with satellite vendors is a connectivity service optimised for business aviation. Moore believes much of the industry’s connectivity is ‘handed down’ from the commercial airlines, a fact he says has previously also been true of antenna technology. “We’ve made our antennas smaller, purpose designing them for a business jet, rather than taking a design for a large commercial passenger aircraft and then trying to make it work on a business jet, where there are too many boxes, it’s not easy to install and doesn’t work as well as it could with the infrastructure and network provider.”
In line with most industry insiders, Moore recognises business aviation’s resilience through the COVID-19 crisis and expects its recovery to pre-pandemic levels to be achieved more quickly than that of commercial flying. Beyond that, it’s reasonable to expect expansion, so where does SD go next? A 100 x 10ft screen?
“Everything we do is scalable, but it’s not about the screen size… The big thing is that we own our own teleport and ground infrastructures, data centres and POPs – points of presence, where the internet lands around the world – infrastructure. It’s all scalable, block-based technology, not unlike Lego. We can build out as we need more space or functionality.”
Returning to the question of what data is and how our interpretation of it has changed, Chris Moore says: “Our job in this is data management. The connectivity pipe enables data transmission, our router collects data from the cabin or cockpit and passes it over the data pipe.
“The transmitted data comes into our data centre, and is then passed through data filtration to its destination. If the customer wants to use Netflix, the data goes to the relevant server, if it’s corporate email, it goes to a different server. Essentially, there is connectivity data and operational data, you can’t have one without the other, and we handle both. If the operational data can’t be transmitted from the aircraft using connectivity data, then it can’t be used or analysed.”
Fortunately for its customers, SD doesn’t expect them to be familiar with the intricacies of POP, IP and data pipes. Instead, the SD Xperience concept expresses connectivity in terms of real-world capability and experience, rather than data and connection speeds. It’s an altogether more useful way for customers to identify the right solution for them.
“We’re agnostic and open architecture,” Moore says, “which means we can maximise the aircraft’s capability to enable them to do what they need to do, to achieve the experience they need, from the data. It’s their data, their information. You might describe us as data brokers. We collect and distribute our customer’s data on their behalf.”
A decade or so ago, the industry was delighted with itself for offering passengers inflight email. Now, movie streaming and intense gameplay are common in the cabin, while flight crew enjoy advanced connectivity options that deliver a wide variety of critical operational, planning and safety information directly into the cockpit. It comes as no surprise that SD is a veteran in cockpit data services, but the achievement of its 2,000th FlightDeck Freedom (FDF) installation earlier this year is nonetheless remarkable.
FlightDeck Freedom delivers a variety of configurable data to pilot tablets and directly to the flight deck, via secure datalink. Customers are free to customise FDF with SD apps or those provided by other companies, or even with software of their own creation. For Moore, FDF has greater significance than the 2,000 installation milestone alone.
“It was our first step into the open architecture, data passing world. As well as bringing information into the cockpit, FDF allows us to bring messaging into the FMS [flight management system], along with communications and the classic services from Inmarsat, and Iridium services, including a FANS [Future Air Navigation Services] box. FlightDeck Freedom really empowers the crew, just as we empower the maximum passenger experience.”
Moore often returns to the themes of open architecture and data distribution. SD has the products and capability to deliver a comprehensive suite of connectivity and apps, yet remains enthusiastic about interfacing with software of the customer’s choice, even when it is sourced from a competitor. His take on the philosophy is interesting.
“We believe that if we build the data architecture and data platform, which is more difficult for smaller companies to invest in, or impossible for those not in communications delivery, then our job is to distribute data and encourage innovation within the business aviation space. If there’s something new that helps our customers achieve the best experience, we’ll integrate with it.”
As an example, Moore notes SD’s recent collaboration with MySky. “They aren’t a communications company, but they do a really good job on spending and budget management, providing spend transparency into the flight department. We’ve interfaced our SD Pro platform and data management so that clients can have that information pass seamlessly into the MySky system.”
It is particularly significant that not once in the course of our conversation did Chris Moore reference the satellite communications packages SD promotes to its clients. His enthusiasm is for moving and exploiting data, using it to optimise the customer experience, whether through the ability to conference call, receive the latest weather information or manage budgets.
“We are in an era when high-speed, reliable satellite connectivity has become commonplace. Now we can focus on delivering the capability our customers need, ensuring they maximise the value of their data and feel secure in its ownership.”