Panasonic Avionics: With FlightLink – More Than IFEC


Tucked into a corner of this year’s Panasonic Booth at AIX in Hamburg was a computer display screen running an actual map with moving indications of commercial aircraft flying their scheduled routes. While this wouldn’t seem odd in many other booths, it caught our eye as it was marked “FlightLink” and had nothing to do with IFE. Panasonic’s Don DeBlasio, Sr. Director, Corporate Strategic Initiatives, was on hand and told IFExpress that Panasonic had acquired a company, previously known as AirDat and now named Panasonic Weather Solutions, just prior to the 2013 AIX Hamburg show. The product is now installed on over 300 aircraft providing Iridium communications, flight tracking and weather, data day in and day out, to commercial customers worldwide. We were caught a bit speechless because the newly named FlightLink solution was humming along in the booth of the largest IFE vendor in our industry. Obviously, Panasonic saw something we did not, but more about that later. If you guessed that the California company was expanding it’s horizons, you might be on the right track… but more of that later too.

From a definition perspective, let’s look at the features of the FlightLink service. FlightLink is a global communications (voice & data) system that delivers aircraft flight tracking and dynamic event alerting as well as weather reporting. FlightLink is an independent GPS-based system that features triggered event reporting, with archived data, all supplied through a secure web portal. In other words, Panasonic has read the commercial aviation tealeaves: airlines will need more data about the flight environment going forward. Significant is the fact that Panasonic, an IFE company, has decided to move into the next phase of their growth and development – Beyond The Cabin. Historically, the company grew the IFE market. Next, and with the addition of satcom availability it moved into the connectivity world and now has orders for over 2,000 plane installations. The progression is obvious, IFE + Connectivity, and now adding FlightLink: Iridium flightdeck communications, flight tracking, dynamic event alerting and weather data. It appears to us that Panasonic aims to make a broad mark into the aviation market and if you talk to Paul Margis or David Bruner you have to come away with that perspective.

To give our readers a better idea of how the system works, here is a bit of dialog we had with Don at the show that might set the stage for a better understanding of FlightLink:

IFExpress: Tell us a bit about FlightLink and what it is designed to do?

Don: “We feel that the name appropriately captures the overall product solution of ‘linking’ the aircraft with the ground, whether it’s for flight deck voice or data via Iridium, tracking the aircraft’s location and communicating other parameters, or gathering precise weather data for Panasonic Weather Solutions.” He went on, “Our message is constant connectivity with the aircraft. With FlightLink, we’re now streaming data from the aircraft and expanding Panasonic’s capabilities into flight deck connectivity. This new name enables differentiation from our Ku-band connectivity solution.”

IFExpress: Can you give our readers a better idea of what we are talking about when we describe the FlightLink System?

Don: “It’s a very simple system comprised of: a forward-lower fuselage mounted external weather sensor; a 3 MCU box called the TPCU that contains: Iridium radio transceivers, independent GPS, data processing and aircraft interfaces; and an antenna (small, iPhone size) for Iridium & GPS.”

IFExpress: Can you give us an idea of coverage?

Don: “Today, Iridium is global (including polar and remote oceanic). In 2015, Iridium will launch their NEXT platform which will also offer true global coverage with even higher bandwidth than what is available today.”

IFExpress: With over 300 installations, the system is, we assume, certified?

Don: “We have FAA and EASA STCs already in hand for numerous airframes, as well as FAA PMA.

IFExpress: With knowledge of winds aloft there must be reduced fuel burn, and we assume, other savings?

Don: “There will be significant opportunities for airlines to use FlightLink to improve operational efficiencies. For example, they can leverage improved wind grids to improve an aircraft’s approach for landing.

IFExpress: During a flight what data is sent between the aircraft and the airline network center (via the Panasonic FlightLink Center)?

Don: “Typically, we are delivering aircraft position (lat & long), altitude, heading, ground speed, GPS time stamp. With the weather sensor, we are also gathering data on wind, temperature, relative humidity, icing, turbulence/EDR (Eddy Dissipation Rate). More options are available as well, if the airline wants to truly leverage the service.”

IFExpress: With the installation of GCS (Global Communications Services) in over 400 planes today (eventually over 2000) we see value in using the greater bandwidth of Ku for the data, realizing that Ku it is not as global as Iridium? In other words is this tied to a bigger plan… a shift to Ku-Band for more data?

Don: Panasonic’s concept of a truly connected aircraft is one with an optimized flow of data through our Ku-band GCS network as well as Iridium.

We at IFExpress are convinced that as a reasonably priced communications, flight tracking & weather data solution, FlightLink has an important job to do and we believe that FlightLink and ADS-S are complimentary components of an overall CNS/ATM aviation industry strategy. ADS-B is for global air traffic management and control. The Panasonic solution enables airline communications with, and connectivity to, their aircraft knowing 100% of the time when and where they are, not relying on the presence of ADS-B or ATC transmissions.  It also provides an independent communications link for airline operations which enables the movement of any amount of desired data over that link. In summary, FlightLink at this point is an answer for many aspects of the “C” (Communication) of CNS/ATM, potentially providing significant help into the ATM portion, especially via weather. The “N” (Navigation) should likely be left up to the FMS manufacturers and the “S” (Surveillance) likely left up to those that make TCAS, ATC Transponders, WX, and TAWS/EGPWS.

Make no mistake; FlightLink is not designed to compete with ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance) the next generation of ATC communication and reporting system. Years ago, FlightLink started as a flightdeck communication and weather data collection system. But, if you are thinking about recent events, you might be like the rest of us. ”Hey, there is another use…”

On Another Front:

AT&T is to be in the US inflight Wi-Fi business, or so the press is saying. Using ground-based antennas (Whose and where?), AT&T will be featuring 4G LTE connectivity to provide greater bandwidth to planes starting as early as 2015, and notably, using the existing AT&T spectrum. Honeywell is named in the new program as a partner, and, we understand Gogo’s stock is down. Think about it, with AT&T’s more than 116 million wireless subscribers, 16.5 million total broadband subscribers and service for many of the world’s largest corporations, including all of the Fortune 1000, they have leverage. Expect new and hi value deals if you are a customer and fly domestically! We will have more on this later as the AT&T solution develops.

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