Reinventing air travel connectivity with SmartSky Networks

The office in the sky has arrived. This is the story of an extraordinary business travel transformation – courtesy of office-grade, multi-Mbps inflight connectivity with minimal latency. From start-up to commercial take-off, we’ve collaborated as a strategic partner for SmartSky Networks to help turn their bold vision into reality.

Passengers on business aviation flights across the continental United States will no longer need to lower their internet expectations. Now everything becomes possible, from heavyweight data transfers and live video conferencing to air-to-ground gaming.

A cellular breakthrough

The custom ground-to-air cellular system launched by SmartSky is for once deserving of the term gamechanger. This next-generation inflight communications network reinvents aviation connectivity for corporate flyers. Unlike anything that’s gone before, it blends advanced cellular technologies into a completely bespoke, highly secure network specifically designed for aviation. Crucially, the breakthrough system features very low latency, high throughput access to cloud and edge services – allowing service operators to market office-like connectivity for the sky.

“Having Cambridge Consultants as a partner has been instrumental in helping bring our concept to market, overcoming seemingly immovable hurdles. Commitment would be an understatement.”

Ryan Stone, co-founder and president

SmartSky Networks

A challenge like no other

“With the help of Cambridge Consultants, we’ve been able to bring this network online at record speed. To be that good and that fast is unheard of, we simply would not be successful today without them.”

Dave Helfgott, CEO

SmartSky Networks

Trusted as part of the team

We at CC are proud to have worked alongside SmartSky on a long-term program of work to develop the network technology and service management platform. We became a trusted extension to its team, committed to turning a business ambition into reality. The goal could not be achieved with existing technologies, so we faced uncharted obstacles together.

The high-performance network had to be designed for a truly challenging environment. The task was to deliver superfast, resilient and low latency connectivity to users travelling at more than 600 mph, maneuvering rapidly at 30,000 ft. Minimising the impact of the Doppler effect – the changes in frequency between a moving source and observer – was one of the many challenges vital for a successful outcome.

Entering new territory with 200 patents

The project demanded that we draw on our full depth of knowledge across wireless and cloud technologies. A multidisciplinary team was assembled to meet the extreme pressure of deadlines dictated by SmartSky’s mission-critical timescales.

In all, the development brought 200 patents to life – a reflection of the number of new technologies created as the project broke exciting new territory. The resulting custom cellular network with modifying radio links operates in the unlicensed 2.4 GHz ISM band with a host of advanced 5G technologies.

A new kind of network

Best-of-both-worlds customisation

Unique customisations abound in the new network. They include novel beamforming as well as multiple optimisations for highly mobile applications, such as timing and signaling. The solution is one that benefits from the best of both worlds. Standard, commoditised technologies and products are balanced with customisation to achieve unique performance especially for aviation.

Unique wedge-shaped beamforming

The new-to-the-market beamforming capability from base stations on the ground creates wedge-shaped coverage patterns that radiate at shallow angles to the earth, creating uniform coverage over vast geographies. This is especially effective at ensuring resilient connectivity with reduced Doppler effect as the aircraft moves and enabling planes to stay within coverage for longer.

It also improves spectral efficiency and network capacity, extends range to more than 200 km (typical cellular range is 10 km) and improves signal to noise ratio. Uniquely, a single beam is provided to each aircraft at any one time, which improves the user experience. This is an entirely novel concept, truly at the cutting edge.

“Invention is important, but if you can’t create something that’s real and dependable, then you don’t have a product. This is what Cambridge Consultants helped us with. They’re a trusted partner, they’re part of our team.”

Dave Claassen, CTO

SmartSky Networks

Connectivity cannot be outmaneuvered

On board the aircraft, a unique antenna beam control algorithm continuously selects the optimal beam from one of many possibilities. The selected beam is then directed towards the base station on the ground. The beauty of this smart utility is that a high quality of service is automatically maintained regardless of the plane’s rapid changes of attitude and position in relation to the base station. It all happens in a blink of an eye.

Data driven insights

Intuitive service management platform

In tandem with the custom radio system, we worked with SmartSky to develop a highly intuitive service management platform to monitor service quality across the network and enhance the services it provides. The platform offers a comprehensive overview of the health of ground operations and – crucially – the inflight experience of every customer.

This will allow service assurance and constant optimisation; in-depth, real-time analysis of the onboard services; and the ability to carry out predictive maintenance. User interfaces enable SmartSky’s teams to manage crucial aspects of the service, from billing and customer support to commissioning and product management.

Sharing in real time to improve service

Another significant advantage of the service management platform is that it allows SmartSky to share network and service information with all its partners and users, from value added resellers of connectivity to aviation companies. The platform includes APIs for third party service providers so that they will be able to benefit from real-time indications of service quality. This smooths the way for improving operational efficiency in areas such as flight path optimisation, turbulence avoidance and data management.

Status: we have lift-off

All technical milestones met

In the summer of 2021, SmartSky announced to the world that all technical milestones of its next-generation broadband air-to-ground network had been achieved. The service was good to go, proven for business jet and turboprop flights transiting the network’s south-eastern corridor, covering a large part of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Incredibly, the dream has been delivered with multi-Mbps connectivity – enabling inflight VPN, HD downloads and much more.

Delivered with a structured, agile approach

More than 100 engineers from Cambridge Consultants have worked across multiple phases of work in the lead up to SmartSky’s commercial launch. All of them can reflect on a job well done: a huge multidisciplinary effort, deploying a breadth of skills in a host of complementary areas, from field-programmable gate array circuit design and user experience to radio system development and advanced antennas. The solution was delivered rapidly and at scale, thanks to a structured, agile project approach that married resources across seven countries and 16 time zones. A lot of work but, hey, that’s what it takes to help reinvent inflight business connectivity.

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