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'Ultimate cloud' comes to the rescue

Flyht's AFIRS 220
Flyht's AFIRS 220AMS/Flyht

Cloud computing isn't just for your music player anymore. The satellite-telecom company Iridium is working with partners on satellite-based systems that can uplink data on a regular basis to its orbiting "cloud" of 66 satellites, just in case a wayward airplane or hiker needs assistance in the remote regions of the world where cell phones and radios don't work.

If such a system had been in place when an Air France jet crashed into the Atlantic in 2009, investigators might have been able to study near-real-time information about the plane's troubles, rather than waiting for the recovery of the jet's black boxes from the ocean bottom.

"They wouldn't have had to spend two years and $40 million," said Matt Desch, Iridium's chief executive officer.

But such systems can do more than untangle air disasters: As more and more companies rely on cloud computing, satellite communications can facilitate links to the Internet in wide regions of the world where there are no good alternatives.

"The cloud is great," Desch told me, "but the cloud says that we have to depend on the Internet more and more. If the Internet is still on only 78 percent of the planet, where's the cloud when you're someplace else? Your device becomes useless. I look at us as the ultimate cloud, the space cloud, if you will."

Technically speaking, Iridium and other satellite data services provide a pipeline rather than a cloud. They don't hold onto the streams of data coming up from users, but route it back down to data centers on Earth where thay can be stored and analyzed. But the idea is similar: to enable devices that can be connected to the global network under any circumstance. That may not be important for the playlist contained in a cloud database, such as Apple's iCloud, Sony's Music Unlimited, Google's Music Beta or the Amazon Cloud Player. But it's vital in the event of an emergency like the Air France crash.

From black box to blue box

Until the data and voice recorders from Air France Flight 447 surfaced, there wasn't much to go on. But if there had been something like the Flyht AFIRS UpTime system in place, investigators could have used satellite-transmitted data to reconstruct the conditions that led to the airliner's fatal plunge.

"It's not a total replacement for the black box," said Richard Hayden, president of Canada-based AeroMechanical Services, which uses Flyht as a brand name. "Where it's going, I think, is to essentially change the entire manner in which aircraft are managed and interact with the team on the ground."

Here's how UpTime works: Every few minutes, readings for the data parameters selected by the aircraft operator are uplinked  through a "blue box" that contains an Iridium satellite-data modem. The readings are downlinked to Iridium's ground stations, transmitted as encrypted data to the UpTime data servers, then sent to the appropriate operation centers. Flight data is also stored in the blue box's memory.

If the software detects an anomaly aboard the airplane, data is streamed continuously through the satellite network. Pilots can also communicate with the ground over what's essentially an Iridium satellite-phone link.

Flyht's AFIRS 220
Flyht's AFIRS 220AMS/Flyht

Hayden said the cost of the service works out to up to $15 an hour for the periodic data transfer, and $4 a minute for streaming data. "In a dire emergency, no one cares about the cost," Hayden told me.

But UpTime isn't just for dire emergencies. The near-real-time data link provides more information in case pilots need some help from the ground. Hayden recalled one case in which the blue box detected an unusual trend in turbine vibration and notified ground maintenance personnel, who in turn called the crew on the Iridium phone and used additional blue-box data to troubleshoot the problem.

"They determined a course of action that ultimately saved the engine from failure and allowed for the safe conclusion of the flight," Hayden said.

The cost of installing Flyht's AFIRS blue box is comparable to the cost of the black box — about $40,000 to $60,000, Hayden said. That cost can be recovered in a matter of months due to more efficient operations, he said. "Its real value is increasing on-time performance and saving money on a daily basis," he said. "The emergency function comes along for the ride."

Hayden said Flyht is taking care of 33 customers, which range from charter air companies such as North American Airlines to cargo operators and military operators. Some of the blue boxes were installed on planes flying U.N. World Food Program humanitarian missions, he said.

"Our customers are on six continents," Hayden said.

Hayden noted that data security requirements were higher for aircraft telemetry than they are for your music player. "There's a degree of privacy and security that's customary in aviation," he said. "We do in fact use the Internet as a medium for the distribution of information ... but it's important to note that the context for the access to and use of this information is perhaps different from what it would be for other applications of the cloud."

Push the SOS button

Iridium's Desch said Flyht's system is well-suited for real-time data transfer via satellite. "We can support, in a raw mode, about 2,400 baud, if you will — it's not much, but we're really talking about bits of information," he said.

An artist's conception shows how DeLorme's inReach app might work on an Android mobile phone.
An artist's conception shows how DeLorme's inReach app might work on an Android mobile phone.DeLorme

Satellite data services are finding their way into other, more down-to-earth devices as well. Maine-based DeLorme, a leading provider of mapping products and locator devices, will offer a two-way satellite communication system known as inReach starting in October. The system can be used to send and receive text messages via satellite when you're out of cellphone range, either through DeLorme's handheld inReach GPS device or in conjunction with Android mobile phones.

DeLorme already makes GPS devices that can send text messages or an SOS via the SPOT/Globalstar satellite communication system. SPOT offers its own line of communicators as well, including SPOT Connect, which works with smartphones.  

The typical scenario might involve suffering an injury while you're on a backcountry hike, beyond the reach of cellular networks. "Take your Android phone, push an SOS button and somebody will come save you," Desch said. Or if you're doing fine, you can send a message letting the folks back home know that. Or you can set the device to send out your coordinates on a periodic basis.

"Think of it like a portable OnStar system that works anywhere on the planet," Desch said.

The GPS device will retail for around $250, and messaging plans start at $9.95 a month. DeLorme said it's interested in supporting other mobile-device platforms, such as iOS, Windows Phone 7 and BlackBerry. This DeLorme blog item provides the details, and here's a follow-up item.

Desch said there are more companies working on satellite-based data applications. And that's added on top of the traditional voice services that made Iridium famous in the first place. "Hurricane Katrina was an eye-opener for a lot of people. We were the only thing that worked for the first two or three weeks," he said. "Haiti was the same way, and Japan was the same way. Now it's Libya. That's a great reminder for the way our network can be used."

In the years to come, new ventures may transform satellite communications from a service reserved for extraordinary circumstances into something as routine and unremarkable as cellphone service. And that's just fine with Desch.

"We've been around 10 years and started out as a big, expensive satellite phone," he said. "But the real business we have today is to make these cost-effective Internet connections, wherever you are on the planet."

Update for 10:15 a.m. ET June 21: With Hayden's help, I've reworded the tale of the turbine to clarify the sequence of events.

More on satellite communications:

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