In this article we provide information on the different type of satellite equipment for aircraft, including their purchase price, operating costs, and the capabilities of each.
There is a significant variation in pricing between the different types of equipment. For simplification, lets categorise the available equipment into (1) basic tracking devices, (2) installed communication systems, and (3) high capacity multi-systems.
Basic Tracking Devices
This is typically a single device that is affixed to the glare shield with suction cups. Its main purpose is to track the position of the aircraft and send event information. This type of equipment almost certainly has a messaging capability, but no voice capability. The tracking and messaging data is sent to and from the aircraft using the Iridium satellite network.
Pricing is around the $1,500 - $3,000 US mark with additional operational costs for the tracking service in the vicinity of $50 - $150 US/month. Some manufacturers also have a built-in cellular network option that complements the satellite technology. The cellular option is a cost-saving measure and used when in-range of cellular networks.
Typical users of this equipment are private owners, tourism/charter operators, and some first-responders. They typically fly small fixed wing and single engine aircraft and helicopters. Well known providers of this equipment are SpiderTracks, Blue Sky Networks, Guardian Mobility, and TracPlus Global. Installation is cheap and there are no installation certification requirements for this type of equipment.
Installed Communication Systems
For this equipment you can expect voice and low-speed data and GPS tracking is standard. It is permanently installed equipment in either the avionics bay or the cockpit of the aircraft.
In some cases, cellular technology supplements the satellite technology, providing operational cost benefits and broadband data for email and internet access. Pricing is around the $10,000 - $20,000 US mark including antennas. The upper end of this price bracket includes add-on’s that include WiFi and Bluetooth™ connectivity for smart devices, or Iridium Push-To-Talk (PTT). There are additional costs operating costs for tracking and voice services, and they are at a similar price point to the basic tracking devices above. There may be additional costs for satellite voice calls, but cellular calling costs are negligible.
This equipment is typically used by first responder aircraft and the military and manufacturers include, Blue Sky Networks, Flightcell, Honeywell and Latitude/SkyTrac. A typical installation will take 2-3 days and will be installed under a Supplementary Type Certificate (STC) or an engineering modification.
High Capacity Multi-Systems
This grade provides high-end satellite equipment for high-capacity voice and high-capacity data. There are many voice and data channels are they are accessible to multiple onboard devices. This system is typically installed in the avionics bay of a wide-body passenger jet or a business jet. Some dual-engine operational helicopters use this equipment, however that is the exception and not the norm.
At the time of writing this equipment uses geostationary satellite networks and large high-gain antennas, however in future this capability will also be provided by Iridium Communications at a lower price-point. It may even use its own terrestrial based network – such as services offered by Gogo, SmartSky and AirSky. Other manufacturers of operational equipment for this market include Rockwell Collins and Honeywell.
The cost of using this equipment is high and the purchase price can be upward of $50,000 US and in most cases upward of $100,000 US including antennas. A high price but you have access to broadband data from pretty much anywhere – the only limitations being at the Poles. This equipment requires a significant installation investment and is installed under a STC.