Q: Do you think the economy will pick up under the new Administration?
A: We still have to see how things unfold, but I think the Trump presidency will be positive for business aviation and for the economy. It has to be a huge plus that he is himself the owner of an iconic private jet. There is, of course, a massive business justification for having a private jet and he knows this as well as anyone.
Plus, this is a hugely innovative industry, and President Trump will be well aware of that. Many of the major advances in aviation come from the private jet sector. The initiatives we are seeing on the supersonic front from both Aerion and Boom are very exciting. On 16 November, for example, Boom Technology and Virgin Galactic showed off their triple engine XB-1 prototype replacement for Concorde.
In the satellite area, we are seeing enormous innovation too. There are many more players coming into both the satellite and the air-to-ground (ATG) communications segment, and more technology is coming along all the time to enable aircraft to receive broader bandwidth from satellites. It is great to see this kind of innovation and investment. We also hear talk of Uber for private jets. That kind of stuff is very exciting as the people involved with private aircraft look for entrepreneurial ways of utilizing those aircraft.
Q: How does all this play for your business?
A: What we at Satcom Direct are doing is to focus on our ability to bring new benefits to our customers, such as managing an aircraft more efficiently, by bringing data off the business jet and into a private network. We made a heavy investment in the business nearly three years ago to improve our terrestrial infrastructure and data centres. We saw, for example, that flight departments are not as advanced, digitally, as you would find in other industries and sectors. So, to provide a service here we launched SD Pro, our baseline system for flight departments. And on top of SD Pro we have built and are building a range of apps to help all those with an interest in flight data and the situation in the aircraft, to make much richer and more rewarding use of the data that is now available.
Very importantly, we also launched our cyber security platform, which makes us the only company in the industry to offer a full end-to-end cyber security network. You must remember that when you have broad bandwidth connectivity to the aircraft, cyber threats become a very real danger that you need to protect against. With Wi-Fi to the cabin and with cockpit data and VIP passengers dealing with commercially sensitive information and passing files between the aircraft and their various office locations, security in the air becomes absolutely vital. This concerns everybody, the owners and VIP passengers, and also aircraft operators, who do not want the embarrassment of their customers getting hacked or suffering a data breach.
To address, this challenge, we have our own data centres connected directly to our satellite operations, so we own all our own infrastructure, apart from the actual satellites, which is why we can provide a complete, military-grade cyber security network for our clients. We manage the bandwidth and connectivity that goes over the satellite, and once it is beamed back to a terrestrial station, we know how to move that data very cost effectively and to view it in real time. We have a major network operations centre in Florida that looks after all our data centres.
Q: You have always had an exclusive focus on private jets. Any plans to offer services and products to commercial aviation?
A: We don’t do commercial aviation. The utilisation of the internet on passenger aircraft is only in its infancy, so we concentrate on private and military aircraft. We may come to look at other markets but this is our sole focus today. I am very pleased to say that our partnership with SmartSky, where we are the sole distribution partner for their ATG network is looking extremely promising. They are already doing test flights on their network and they are looking at rolling that out over the next 18 months.
Q: You cover both the Ka and Ku bands, don’t you?
A: We do. We partner with Panasonic, who have a very strong Ku-band network, which provides virtually the same speed and coverage as Inmarsat’s Ka-band, and we can offer both to clients. There is tremendous competition in the satellite communications sector right now. Intelsat have just launched their Epic satellite, which will be an extremely high bandwidth service, comparable to Inmarsat’s Ka-based service. Customers tend to get confused between the two, wondering which will offer them faster broadband, but they are now both quite similar.
Q: What else are you seeing by way of innovation in this space?
A: There is now more flexibility and more innovation around the terminals side as well, so we can get satellite communications onto smaller aircraft now, with multiple connectivity options. The company we acquired in December 2016, TrueNorth, makes our SDR router. This acquisition gives us a very strong hardware design and manufacturing capability. We now manufacture around 90% of all the aircraft routers on the market.
We also bought Aircraft Logs, the scheduling company, so now we are able to offer clients a very powerful scheduling module that can take information direct from the operator’s fleet of aircraft, wherever they are in the world. We have been providing fleet data for a number of years with SD Pro, but with the scheduling module we can now scale our solutions to any size of fleet, from an operator with just two aircraft, all the way to a 500+ aircraft fleet.
We have always provided satellite based data to both the cockpit and the cabin, but TrueNorth has given us a great deal of ability to develop and manufacture our own hardware solutions. These combined communications and technical capabilities allow us to really drive technical breakthroughs in aircraft connectivity.