cellular, airborne, dzmx, flightcell, aviation, avionics, sims, first responders

The Future of Airborne Cellular Comms

By Flightcell

In the mid 1990’s we were the first to pair a cell phone to a helicopter intercom system. Fast forward 25 years, and the use of cellular technology in aviation and aerospace has become widespread. It’s now used by many first responders, government agencies, business aircraft and commercial airlines. And more recently it has become an essential technology for drones that operate beyond line of sight.

The driver for this has been the quest for more capability at a lower price point than satellite communications and the quest for more data. More on this later.

How it Works
An aviation approved cellular blade antenna mounted underneath the aircraft offers a clear view to the network below. The antenna is connected by cable to communication equipment mounted in the avionics bay or the cockpit. Onboard access and usage is via a dedicated keypad or a through a smart device with a WiFi connection.

We are not just talking about voice communication here, we are also talking about internet access, messaging, and email – like you have come to expect from a cell phone on the ground.
Questions we often get asked are “what is the network availability like?”, “how high can we fly before we lose signal?” and “what data rates can we expect?”. Unfortunately, there are no easy answer to these questions. It depends on:

1. The network technology used.
2. The network coverage and location of the cell towers.
3. The transmit power of the cell towers.
4. The frequency bands used.

Generally, the reception from the air is better than on the ground and we see coverage rates of 80-90% for most of our first responder customers.  

As mentioned earlier, there are cost benefits to using cellular communications for voice and data, and for aircraft tracking for that matter. Particularly when it is measured against its main alternative - satellite communications. Satellite is significantly more expensive, especially if you need a decent data rate. On the flipside the availability is huge; it can be accessed from any location on the planet if you use the Iridium satellite service.

There is no major engineering feat needed to get up and running with cellular in the air. Once the hardware is installed, in most cases, it is as simple as signing up for a voice and data plan from your telecom network provider or a value-added reseller. You then insert a SIM card into the unit and make a few configuration decisions.

Latest Developments
Until now, global coverage and roaming has been easily achieved. With the exception of an optional 450MHz only modem option, we have used a single cellular modem in our Flightcell DZMx products. This has been useful for customers operating across multiple continents.

Chip manufacturers have recently changed the game and are now providing regionalised modem chips that can be used in a limited number of regions and countries. This is likely to affect only a small number of operators and they will need to cross reference the cell modem options against the countries they are operating in and the frequency bands of the telecom operators in those countries. Flightcell can help with this.

What’s Next?
Data, data, data. There is a requirement for more of it – more than a single 4G voice + data connection provides. We offer dual independent cell modems now, but future technology will use multiple cellular modems. The combination of modems will result in a single large bandwidth pipe. There will be flexibility with different frequency bands being used and even simultaneous use of different cellular network providers. Multiple SIM cards will be required and there will most likely be an end-to-end service for data coordination and billing.

Want to know more about cellular communications in the air? Please email us at: info@flightcell.com