How Inmarsat is building a network for aviation from the ground up

Inmarsat’s Global Xpress is one of the most widely used connectivity solutions by airlines, serving carriers from the Middle East giant Qatar to ASEAN challenger AirAsia to the UK legend that is Virgin Atlantic. However, Inmarsat is jostling for space in an increasingly crowded marketplace, with satellite companies old and new vying for their slice of the pie.

Inmarsat GX
Five high throughput satellites currently make up the GX network. Image: Inmarsat

But Inmarsat is quietly confident about the future of the Global Xpress network. Get Connected caught up with Dominic Walters, Vice President at Inmarsat Aviation, to discuss what makes the GX network so good for airlines. Here’s what we discussed.

The Inmarsat strategy: designed for aviation

Inmarsat has a solid strategy behind the development of the GX network. They call this strategy their roadmap. Dominic told us,

“We’re really excited about our roadmap. We feel that we are the only supplier out there that not only has a strategy that is built for aviation, but is delivering against it too. We are absolutely building from the ground up what is required for an industry that is growing at a huge pace.”

And growing it is too. IATA suggests passenger numbers could double to 8.2 billion by 2037, which it says will require more than 40,000 new aircraft to become operational. That’s a massive boost in air traffic, but Inmarsat is prepared for the future. Dominic said,

“Connectivity is going to sit at the heart of how the industry copes with this huge amount of growth.”

A roadmap to global coverage

Anyone who knows Global Xpress will remember it all started with the launch of three satellites. These, Inmarsat says, were to provide a base of coverage from which to grow,

“Global Xpress is building on capacity in a very structured way. GX 1-3 were sent up to provide global coverage, something we call creating a ‘global underlay’ . Our starting point was to put a blanket of connectivity around the world so that all corners could be reached through GX. Then we add more and more capacity depending on where the demand is.”

Qatar inflight wifi
Much of Qatar’s fleet is connected with Inmarsat’s GX system. Photo: Qatar

Since then, the skies have welcomed the addition of two more satellites. These were not merely an addition to GX1 – 3; they both serve specific roles within the network, as Dominic explained,

“We then put up GX4 which has steerable beams. This adds capacity, but more importantly, it adds redundancy. Redundancy is a really important part of our strategy.GX5 is quite a big leap forward for us. It has more capacity in that one satellite than in the whole GX fleet of 1 to 4, and it’s 25% smaller too.”

So GX4 exists to add capacity where it’s needed most, thanks to its steerable beams. More than that, however, it’s there to pick up the pieces should something happen with any of the other satellites in the network. GX5, however, is designed to provide coverage in a very specific space.

“GX5 has gone up and that will be positioned to provide coverage in Europe and the Middle East. Europe the Middle East are some of the most contested and busy flight paths in the world. So you now have your global underlay, you have our  GX4 with steerable beams adding capacity where and when we need it, and now you have GX5 adding an inordinate amount of capacity over Europe and the Middle East

“We will now begin a period of very intense testing and calibration which we hope to end early next year. This is when we will move to commercial service with GX5.”

GX5
GX was launched at the end of November. Photo: Inmarsat

So, we can expect GX5 to be commercially usable at some point in the new year; it’s not long to wait, and undoubtedly Inmarsat’s large customer in the Middle East, Qatar, is eager to see the results. But we’re not done yet. Inmarsat has several more launches planned, all part of the same roadmap and all with specific functions and roles within the GX network.

What’s next

In the roadmap, Inmarsat has seven more satellites planned for deployment. The first of these will be the twin satellites GX6A and GX6B. Dominic explained that these will be ready to launch next year (6A) and in 2021 (6B). Like GX4, these satellites have steerable beams which will allow them to add capacity and redundancy to the existing network, and to respond to market demands as more capacity is needed.

However, it’s the next three satellites that are really exciting. GX7, 8 and 9 are the first Inmarsat satellites to be built by Airbus, and are a real step change in terms of technology. Dominic said,

“We announced GXs 7,8 and 9 earlier in the year. These satellites embody absolutely groundbreaking technology. We worked with Airbus to shape what exactly they will do and the technology around them. We are very excited about them because they will be delivered faster, more cost effectively and they’re going to be much more flexible than anything we’ve seen before.

Inmarsat GX satellite
Airbus will build the next generation of GX satellites. Photo: Inmarsat

“We’re talking about dynamic beamforming with the flexibility to redirect from one area to another area very quickly; we’re talking instantaneously. What that means is you can imagine you might be powering down over the East Coast of America when they are going to sleep and then putting a huge amount of capacity with the same satellite over the West coast instead. It’s that kind of flexibility that these new generations of satellites are actually going to deliver.

“And they will be adding to GX, so this is not in any way a replacement. It’s additional satellites being added to what is already a powerful constellation.”

Once these groundbreaking satellites are deployed, there will be almost nowhere in the world that GX doesn’t have fast, reliable coverage. Almost nowhere. But Inmarsat are not satisfied with ‘almost’; they have taken the challenge of providing coverage to the most remote areas of our planet, and have come up with quite an elegant solution.

The polar satellites

Inmarsat’s polar solution is to deploy two satellites of a type they are not known for using. Historically a GEO satellite operator, 10A and 10B will be HEO satellites – highly elliptical orbit. Dominic told us about the plans,

“What’s exciting about those is they’re not geostationary satellites. These are highly elliptical satellites, which is something new for Inmarsat. We will invest in the right solutions to meet the needs of our customers and the industry, so we’re happy to go into highly elliptical.

“The beauty of that is they come at a very high position above the Arctic meaning that we beam down over the whole region in a very large scale manner. The Arctic is one of those regions which is not the easiest to get a satellite over, so this produces one of the most powerful solutions which is out there. This will give us and our customers absolutely the best, the fastest and the most reliable system in the world.”

GX10A and 10B
GX10A and 10B will be Inmarsat’s first HEO satellites. Photo: Inmarsat

With this innovation, Inmarsat are proving that they’re willing to break out of traditional patterns and do exactly what is required by their customers to give the absolute best coverage possible.

Does that mean, then, that when 10A and 10B are launched, the GX network is done? Not likely. Inmarsat are quite clear on the fact that they are always learning, always innovating and always ready to try new things to ensure they are the very best network out there. Dominic was confident that nothing had been ruled out for the future,

“Don’t think just because we haven’t announced a low earth orbit satellite and we’ve only done geo’s that we only do geo’s. We are constantly analyzing the market and, more importantly, we will look at what is best for our customers.”

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