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Connecting Military Helicopters—3 Critical Things to Know

Connecting Military Helicopters

In order to counter global threats, the Department of Defense (DoD) continually upgrades much of its critical communications infrastructure on the ground, at sea and in the air. But there is one platform, in particular, that still lacks adequate connectivity – on rotary wing aircraft. Connecting these aircraft is particularly challenging in geographic areas that can’t support Line-of-Sight (LoS) microwave communications availability, such as off shore, over mountains, or in countries that lack the infrastructure. Despite these challenges, Hughes and its industry partners are now providing high-throughput broadband satellite links for these critical aircraft.

As requirements grow for constantly connected missions, there are three important considerations to consider when seeking Beyond-Line-of-Sight (BLoS) satellite communications (SATCOM) for helicopters and other rotary wing aircraft.

  1. Service costs: Buyer Beware

First and foremost, cost is a critical factor. But cost for commercial SATCOM services can vary significantly depending on the type of service being used: narrowband or broadband. Narrowband, such as L-band, can be expensive over time, even though it delivers lower throughput. This is because L-band is typically billed by the minute instead of by the bit. The very fact that this application is about BLoS connectivity will (ostensibly) mean longer flight times -- and subsequently, more minutes of bandwidth usage.

On the other hand, commercial aero-mobility solutions are rising to deliver in-flight Wi-Fi. They leverage commercial broadband in Ka- and Ku-band high throughput satellite (HTS) networks for connectivity – typically priced on bandwidth usage, rather than time used. This approach could present a more cost-effective solution (and higher throughput) to connect rotary wing aircraft.

  1. Performance Parameters: How much throughput is needed to support your data requirements?

Throughput requirements depend on the application. For example, an application that requires only voice and text data transmission can be satisfied with a narrowband link of just 512 - 700 kbps. But while voice and text were enough to support most missions 20 years ago, today’s military teams need to transmit more bandwidth-intensive Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) data and HD video to enhance situational awareness for soldiers on the ground. In fact, military helicopters commonly use powerful EO/IR cameras which capture 1080p video with 120x zoom ratio, necessitating higher data rates for BLoS communications to maximize the benefits of camera and sensor technology.

For these feeds to work without LoS ground infrastructure, the SATCOM system must support consistent transmissions of at least 1-3 megabits per second. And that’s today. Smart buyers should consider systems that can deliver up to 10 megabits per second to meet the full variety of evolving BLoS mission requirements.

  1. Open-systems architecture versus closed systems: Flexibility for evolving hardware

The third criteria that should be considered for a rotary-wing SATCOM solution is the system architecture – whether opened or closed. A closed system, while sometimes turnkey and cost-effective, puts the buyer at risk of “vendor lock,” which forces them into using one vendor’s end-to-end solution (service included) instead of leveraging the flexibility of a best-of-breed solution to support various mission applications.

An open systems approach enables faster adoption of new technology as it becomes available and allows for higher flexibility to tailor the system to mission requirements. By using standardized interfaces to connect the best antenna to the best modem to the best satellite with the best waveform, the warfighter gains a clear advantage in keeping up with the latest technology advancements. Moreover, countering the cost and turnkey advantages of typical closed-architecture solutions, a proven Managed Services Provider (MSP) can enable a vendor-neutral and system-agnostic solution that is tailored to meet specific mission – and cost – requirements, presenting a customizable alternative to the “one size fits all” approach

Today’s rotary wing aircraft are evolving to meet modern mission requirements – flying faster, farther, and longer. Today’s commercial SATCOM networks are also evolving, supplying C4ISR data to and from the aircraft wherever the mission goes, regardless of the number of blades, the distance or the application. As more options for rotary-wing connectivity become available, these three parameters – cost, throughput and architecture – can help the buyer determine the best solution that provides the most value for missions of today…and tomorrow.

To learn about Hughes Helosat solution for rotary wing aircraft, click here.