Today in IFExpress we feature an interview with Mark Thompson whose company, Thompson Aerospace (TA), has rolled out a new product, and we note, it is not IFE related, but rather, it focuses on the “C” or connectivity part of our aviation interest. The product is the Secure Global Aircraft Tracking Unit (SGATU), a fully compliant tracking solution for commercial aircraft. As the release notes: “Thompson Aerospace created the Secure Global Aircraft Tracking Unit to provide the economic benefits achieved by real-time information and to meet the pending rules. The solution does not rely on any aircraft system to provide location, speed, altitude, attitude (pitch, yaw, and roll), vertical velocity, and cabin pressure. This truly remarkable product uses less than 2 watts under normal operation, and can be augmented with TrueBluePower battery technology, that will allow up to 14 hours of operation in flight in the event of total power loss.” You can find the news release here.

Q: Mark, to start off, our readers think of TA as an IFEC company based on products seen at tradeshows. This data effort seems new; perhaps you can explain your company’s new efforts and paint a picture of where you are going to be in the years to come?

ANS: Our first project was on B1 program for secure data management using IP networks, our second project was an in-seat power product that we worked on with some large airlines and an OEM.  So while our first announced program was our interactive in-seat IFE product, we had developed a lot of technology using our patented technology. We have always been a company focused on low cost, high reliable IP based networks, and as an IFE system is the largest consumer of data on an aircraft, our technology worked very well.  Due to our inability to secure a large customer base, we went back to focus on secure IP network technology and redesigned our network to be in compliance with RTCA new standards, DO-326, 355, 356, and FIPS 140-2.  We view making an aircraft a secure node on a private network to be the best economical solution for airlines. Once this is done, it opens up possibilities in many areas for increased revenues from passengers to reduce operational costs for airlines.

Q: Can you tell us a bit more about your new product?

ANS:Our first new LRU based on these RTCA standard is our Secure Aircraft Tracking Module, it is fully complaint with the ICAO Tracking recommendation, EASA new tracking rule and also provides the airlines with real-time access to all critical systems data from their maintenance centers.  It is basically like a cell phone on a plane, except it uses the Iridium Network, and is able to operate without aircraft power for up to 14 hours in flight.  It has a dual channel GNSS solution so it does both GPS plus GLONASS, Galileo or Beidou system.  It is the first step in creating an aware aircraft using a very secure security solution.  We have embedded sensors built into the unit to allow us to determine pitch, roll, and yaw with no aircraft inputs, and can even do a ground monitor of the aircraft for up to 48 hours to allow the airlines to know aircraft status with no power, for items such as door opening, aircraft movement or if an aircraft has been hit on the ground. Our view is an aircraft should be at least as smart as my smart phone.”

Q: What is SATM?

ANS: “The new EASA regulations provides airlines options to meet the requirements: either a new real-time, robust data system or to equip the aircraft with an upgraded traditional Underwater Locating Device (ULD). While the second solution meets the requirements for this EASA rule, the rule did not address the core issue of what the aircraft condition is at all times. Thompson Aerospace’s view is that an advanced, secure, robust data solution providing enhanced tracking with real-time situation awareness of all systems provides more value. Thompson Aerospace created the Secure Aircraft Tracking Module (SATM) to provide the economic benefits achieved by real-time information and to meet the pending rules. The solution does not rely on any aircraft system to provide location, speed, altitude, attitude (pitch, yaw, and roll), vertical velocity, and cabin pressure. This truly remarkable product uses less than 2 watts under normal operation, and can be augmented with TrueBluePower battery technology, that will allow up to 14 hours of operation in flight in the event of total power loss.”

Q: You note the new EASA requirements in your news release, can you quickly describe them?

ANS: “They are as follows:
1. The Aircraft has to report its position.
2. The Aircraft has to report alerts.
3.  The Aircraft System has to be able to operate without aircraft power for the whole duration of the flight. If you can’t do this, you are not compliant (and I see no other compliant system on the market today). We meet all the existing EASA rules, plus the recommendations from ICAO.  It is important to understand that the EASA first rule is not fully compliant with the ICAO recommendation and we expect more rules to follow.   The other items are just different types of data that the airlines either do today or are things they could do if they purchased very expensive equipment.

Q: Was security an issue in the EASA requirements and is data speed (rate) and/or cost an issue?

ANS: “The rule by EASA did not address security at this time, but RTCA has created our guidance and it is best to follow this guidance.  The main focus is key creation, stowage and retrieve, and digital signatures.  If you have a robust means to manage this in a secure environment you will meet the requirements.  So for our solution we have chosen the Amazon Cloud, they provide very high level of security with their HSM products.  This required us to purchase some equipment and pay a usage fee, they provide the physical security as part of the fees. Airlines can choose to purchase their own equipment from companies such as SafeNet or Thales to meet the ground based hardware security requirements.  The hard part is how to manage the airborne part of the network. We have created a couple of solutions, we have built into our SATM a hardware security engine that is able to manage keys both for our tracking and other equipment thru an 100 BaseTX link.  This would allow us to provide protected keys from either our cloud or any third party to any other airborne equipment.  We can also check digital signatures thru a CA or provide this service ourselves using the same 100 BaseTX solution.” (Editor’s Note: We will have more on this later.)

“You are correct the link is very slow and very expensive to use, so you would not want to move large or even medium size data thru this link, hence it is not useful in moving large files.  While this product is able to provide the first step to security, managing keys and checking signatures, it does not protect the equipment on the aircraft from virus.”

“We can only check the data once it has been loaded and as such, it is impossible to provide a complete comprehension security solution.”

“We have another product that is intended as a security firewall, the CSUv2, this has (2) hardware security engines and the concept is all the data moves thru this unit prior to being loaded into another airborne unit.  This unit can insure that no data that is not approved in advance is moved into the aircraft domain, is able to keep all the data separate by domain.  This unit includes two LTE data chipsets, plus 3 processors, over 2T of stowage, and an Iridium Voice channel.” (Editor’s Note: More on this later, too.)

“This unit has more than enough processing power to provide over 500 streams of VOD in a single ARINC 600 complaint 2 MCU box while at the same time providing QAR/AID functions on all the Arinc717 and Arinc429 data.  Due to recent advances in chip technology, this unit is able to provide Gigabit Ethernet switching without using a COTS Ethernet switch chipset.  It is truly amazing what we are able to do today compared to what we did with our first unit, the CSU.”

Q: Mark, is there a value proposition in the data transmission or the security thereof?

ANS: “In addressing the airline partners we believe value is important and by leveraging the latest technology value-added features will save money beyond just meeting regulatory requirements. TA understands the value of data security and in the unlikely event data needs to be examined; the secure chain of trust assures data has not been altered. The solution is based on the latest in microelectronics technology, hardware security and Iridium technology to provide airlines with the best cost advantages in the market place to replace older technology.”

Q: Perhaps you can provide our readers with a bit more information about your security product(s) as noted in your SATM news release?

ANS: “Thompson Aerospace is a leader in securely protecting aircraft data and has securely moved over 500 million records between aircraft and secure ground locations. Our patented Hardware Security Module allows us to securely move any type of data to and from an aircraft using the most reliable and secure means. Our first product used Hardware Security to move data between the aircraft the cloud and was installed on (4) A320/A319 aircraft.  All the data from the cloud came into our hardware chipset located in our server before we moved it to the processor.  We also have Hardware Security built into each one of our monitors at the seat.  This allowed us to meet all the PCI credit card processing and MPAA security requirements.  All the records we moved from the plane including credit cards, content updates, passenger usage statics, and aircraft operation data were digitally encrypted and signed to validate that the data had not been altered.  We always have hardware security built into our product to separate the aircraft domains. This was the subject of our first patent.  When the new requirements for data security were published, we made a business decision to update our existing product line.  Due to advances in chip technology and lessons learned we were able to offer a solution that is more than twice as capable at a price 1/3 less today than we did 4 years ago. One of our ARINC 600 2 MCU servers has more than enough processing power to do most wide body aircraft… and with our enhanced patented technology, we can also provide QAR/AID functions at the same time.  While we are not focused on in-seat IFE market, we can provide a customer with a full VOD product for 1/3 less today than we did just 4 years ago.”

“The product now includes a fully complaint tracking solution, 2-channel Iridium capability, including voice and 2-channel LTE, plus wireless access points. The tracking product we have made is the first step to making an aircraft a secure node on the cloud. Once the airlines understand the benefits, we expect to change how we all view aircraft data systems. “

Q: What Thompson Aerospace product STC’s in this product line exist today? What is involved in a kit for this product?

ANS: “REF: “Thompson Aerospace, has partnered with JANA,  and ALOFT AeroArchitects, to provide STC’s for commercial and business aircraft. This partnership can provide STC approved kits for all model type aircraft in 2016 within six month of receiving an order.”

“We expect the STCs to be issued in March and are currently working with our partners JANA on the first STCs.  Our business jets STCs will follow once we have PMA on the SATM.  We will be able to deliver an optional SATM within 6 months after PO for any customer today. We are very happy to have two well-known companies to help us bring this product to the market as fast as possible.”

Q: When will the service be available?

Ans: “Thompson Aerospace (TA) of Irvine, CA is offering its secure aircraft tracking/data solution as the most economical and fully compliant means to meet the new EASA rules released on December 16, 2015. This solution is available to all aircraft types, with the first STC’s expected in March 2016 on B767-200, B767-300 and MD10 aircraft. The expectation is to have B777 STC’s in the second quarter of 2016 with other aircraft model types including business jets to follow during the year.

For more information contact Mark Thompson.