Missile Guidance Tracking Systems and In-Flight Connectivity Have More in Common Than You Think

 In ThinAir


The following article was published on November 13, 2013 by the Airline Passengers Experience Association by Barbara Cockburn.

What do missile guidance tracking systems and in-flight connectivity have in common? It turns out quite a bit thanks to ThinKom, one of the newest names in the commercial connectivity market.

The company is not particularly new but its role as the hardware provider behind Gogo’s recently announced Ground- to-Orbit (GTO) high-speed solution has brought it in to the spotlight in the commercial aircraft space. Now that it’s got its foot in the door it seems that opportunities to expand that presence are very real.

The company grew up in the military space, thanks in part to it founders’ history with military contractors. At one point some of the work it was doing was on target tracking systems. The technology turned out to not be ideal for that usage case but it happens to be quite useful for high-speed data transmissions.

The founders struck out into business on their own and over the past decade have become best known around the globe for their thin antenna systems providing connectivity in a variety of military applications, both in the air and in on-the-go terrestrial scenarios.

Those early efforts, building durable, reliable and efficient systems left the company primed to enter the commercial space with products which offered higher spectrum efficiency and lower operational costs than other vendors. Alas, breaking in to the commercial market proved challenging.

As Greg Otto, ThinKom’s director of sales & marketing, explained, “Getting in to the commercial transport space is a little bit more challenging in terms of having the Parts Manufacturer Approval (PMAs) and supplemental type certificate (STCs).”

ThinKom competed for the contract to provide the Panasonic eXConnect platform with a partner but missed out on that deal. With the Gogo GTO deal they’ve finally broken in to the space in a big way.

Looking to the future, ThinKom is keeping its options open, pursuing both the military and commercial opportunities available. In the military space UAVs are the hot product right now. ThinKom has compiled research related to equipping those craft with hardware providing speeds greater than one megabit throughout their mission profiles, among other things. At least there will only be one user consuming that bandwidth, unlike on a commercial flight.

On the commercial side, the in-flight connectivity market continues to grow. In markets where airlines were once hesitant to put the connectivity hardware on board, Otto sees the attitudes shifting: “It is more of a given that people are expecting [connectivity]. The bandwidth uses are growing and the adoption is growing.” Supporting those bandwidth demands in a cost-effective manner will require more efficient spectrum usage and lower operating costs, two areas in which ThinKom excels.

Compared to a traditional radome the low-profile cross section of the ThinAir platform offers up savings in the $50- 100k range on an annual basis thanks to decreased drag and the commensurate decrease in fuel consumption. It is hard to ignore such numbers, especially when they are additive to the spectrum efficiency and other benefits that the platform brings to the table.

The company is also rather bullish on the Ka-band spectrum. Otto remarked that Ka represents a huge growth market for ThinKom, “There is a huge emphasis on Ka band right now. We’re doing a lot of flight tests with Ka right now with various satellite integrators.”

While there is competition in the ultra-thin satellite hardware space, at least at the research and development level, ThinKom has the advantage of operating with a proven platform today, one which has higher tested efficiencies than the theoretical specs being described by their competitors. That leaves the company in an enviable position; things are looking mighty good right now.

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