Cockpit video system faces uphill battle

Qualcomm Inc. has demonstrated a satellite-based aviation safety system, saying it could help prevent aircraft hijackings by relaying real-time video from airline cockpits and cabins to the ground and provide a dedicated voice communications channel for onboard air marshals.

San Diego-based Qualcomm plans to transmit the real-time data that could include information from flight monitoring systems, over a satellite system in which it holds a minority interest, Globalstar Telecommunications LP. The raw data throughput of a single channel on the Globalstar system is 9.6K bit/sec., but Qualcomm said it could provide throughput of 128K bit/sec. by using multiple channels for its security system.

Qualcomm said in a statement that its satellite aviation safety system is “in the final stages” of certification by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). However, the FAA has described that certification process as complex and lengthy. Iridium Satellite LLC in Arlington, Va., has submitted a proposal to the FAA for a similar system using its satellite system. Chicago-based The Boeing Co. has said it can provide the same capabilities through its Connexion by Boeing service. Connexion by Boeing was originally designed to provide high-speed Internet connections for passengers.

Tim Scannell, an analyst at Mobile Insights Inc. in Quincy, Mass., said any aviation security system that relies on either Iridium or Globalstar is “chancy” because of the financial conditions of both companies. Iridium has already filed for bankruptcy protection once, and Globalstar has suspended payments on the debt used to finance its US$850 million system last January.

Installing new avionics equipment on commercial aircraft is a “complex undertaking” and requires a long testing process, according to FAA spokesman William Shumann. The task is compounded because different satellite equipment would have to be designed for every kind of aircraft, ranging from small commuter planes to jumbo jets.

Management of live voice and video data streams would be equally difficult, Shumann said, noting that there are 35,000 to 40,000 flights each day in the United States.

Comsat Mobile Communications in Bethesda, Md., a unit of Lockheed Martin Global Telecommunications Inc., has a leg up on the planned Qualcomm/Globalstar and Iridium aviation security systems because its equipment is already FAA-certified and operating worldwide, according to company spokesman Tom Surface.

Surface said that today, about 3,500 aircraft have Comsat satellite systems that are designed to provide crew communications services and passenger Internet service. He said the Comsat system could be adapted to provide the same kind of security services that Iridium and Qualcomm have proposed.