APEX TECH: What’s Next for ACARS?


David Coiley, vice-president, Aviation, Inmarsat

David Coiley, vice-president, Aviation, Inmarsat

Today, at the APEX TECH Conference, David Coiley, Vice President, Aviation, Inmarsat, talked about new connectivity technologies that will provide enhanced “safety-of-flight” for airlines.

Current safety system connectivity is primarily based on the decades-old Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS). Coiley describes ACARS as an “archaic, character-oriented messaging set, which was originally developed to manage crew pay.”  ACARS first merely transmitted flight timing information, but the data stream was expanded over the years to include position reporting, flight management information, and Air Traffic Control (ATC) requests and clearances.  ACARS uses a line-of-sight Very High Frequency (VHF) radio network, or High Frequency radio and L-band satellite communication while an aircraft is out of VHF radio range.  This simple, text system works incredibly well, and as Coiley says “that’s both the beauty and limitation of ACARS.”

As the concept of an “e-aircraft” continues to develop, ACARS safety messaging will need to be integrated.  Aircraft are getting smarter, with on-board systems streaming reams of operational data every second.  A new 787 or A350, for example, comes out of the factory with internal networks capable of telling technicians the state of the aircraft, even while in the air.  The challenge is getting that data to and from the ground, in an efficient, economical way. “As aircraft start spewing out data, ACARS won’t be able to keep up,” says Coiley.  In order to increase the bandwidth, an Internet Protocol (IP) satellite connection would enhance an aircraft’s communication ability, much in the way Wi-Fi streaming works on the ground.

In a test of new technology, Inmarsat and technology partner Cobham Antenna Systems are currently working with Hawaiian Airlines to install ACARS IP systems on nine of Hawaiian’s Boeing 767s. The additional bandwidth will not only allow for transmission of current ACARS data, but will include real-time weather, chart updates, and connectivity for the crews’ electronic flight bags.  The system will operate over Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband (SBB) satellite system.  Coiley says that Inmarsat’s older satellites are “running out of gas,” and are being replaced with new satellites that will operate the upgraded SBB system.  Inmarsat’s legacy ACARS products are planned to be phased out as the older satellites go off-line in 2018, and Coiley says that the new IP system will provide an upgrade path for airlines.