Honeywell Aerospace recently unveiled its latest small satcom system, called VersaWave with 5G, designed specifically for advanced air mobility (AAM) vehicles and uncrewed aerial systems (UAS). This innovative system combines satellite communication (satcom), cellular connectivity (including 5G, 4G, and 3G), Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth capabilities in an incredibly small and lightweight package. By integrating these various connectivity options, VersaWave enables beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) communication, making it an ideal solution for UAS.
Honeywell released details of an earlier version of its small satcom system back in 2020 with the idea that it could serve as a backup communication system for drones when cellular networks are unavailable or unreliable.
“VersaWave significantly enhances our small satcom system introduced in 2021, and we expect it to be adopted not just by the AAM market but also defense and commercial customers,” Steve Hadden, vice president and general manager, Services and Connectivity, Honeywell Aerospace, commented on the announcement. “By adding cellular connectivity, the new satcom system will provide customers with the flexibility to choose their connectivity solution based on individual needs without having to install multiple systems.”
One of the key differentiating factors of VersaWave with 5G is its compact size: it weighs just 2.2 pounds. Mark Hedden, Director of Defense Sales for Honeywell Aerospace, emphasized in an interview with Avionics International that the company strived to develop one of the smallest satcom broadband systems on the market. To achieve this, Honeywell collaborated closely with its customers during the development phase, gathering insights into their needs, challenges, and preferences. Incorporating customer feedback and aligning with the requirements of actual platform owners helped Honeywell to create a competitive product.
Hedden highlighted several design features that set VersaWave apart from other systems. Firstly, the system was intentionally designed as a two-part solution rather than a monolithic design. This modular approach makes it easier to integrate the system onto small AAM and UAS platforms. Additionally, VersaWave utilizes a directional antenna, which eliminates the need for continuous navigation data and ensures constant contact with the satellite. Unlike electronically steered arrays (ESAs) that require continuous data input to maintain steering, the omni-directional antenna simplifies the process. Honeywell’s aim was to reduce weight and data rate without compromising performance.
“We started looking at potential data rates that we could get with various gain antennas, various qualities of antennas,” Hedden explained. “I like to tell people I can do a lot with 200 kilobits per second, I just can’t do it all. You have to be smart about how you utilize that 200 kilobits per second.”
The development of VersaWave with 5G was influenced by feedback from customers who had previously integrated Honeywell’s satcom system as well as those who opted for alternative solutions. This iterative process allowed Honeywell to identify the limiting factors associated with the legacy system and make improvements accordingly. The introduction of 5G was a direct result of this feedback-driven development approach. Honeywell recognized that cost is a crucial factor for businesses operating in the AAM and UAS sector, and they worked to keep overall operational costs competitive. Additionally, the desire for BVLOS operations motivated the incorporation of satellite communication as a backup solution when line-of-sight data transmission is obstructed.
“Most of these companies that are going to be operating, especially in the UAV [uncrewed aerial vehicle] sector, operate off of by-the-hour rates—charging a certain dollar amount per hour to operate the platform. So we have to be very cognizant of those operators to make them competitive in the market by ensuring that we can keep the overall cost of operation down,” Hedden stated.
Incorporating cellular capability into VersaWave with 5G was a logical progression, since many operators in the industry already rely on cellular networks. This addition was achieved with minimal weight increase and allowed for seamless transitions between 3G, 4G, and 5G networks.
Honeywell leveraged its experience in the commercial airline industry, where they have developed “what we call auto failovers,” he commented. “The more technical term is transparent gateways. What that means is that we develop a system for commercial airlines that automatically fails over to the next best network.”
Auto failover systems can seamlessly switch between different networks based on factors such as cost, bandwidth, and quality of service. This expertise was integrated into VersaWave with 5G, enabling it to automatically switch between cellular networks and satellite communication, ensuring constant connectivity even in challenging environments.
Hedden mentioned that the feedback from customers and the Department of Defense played a crucial role in developing the resilient communication capabilities of VersaWave with 5G. By incorporating transparent gateways into a single terminal, Honeywell addressed the need for communication resiliency, allowing operators to maintain connectivity with their systems regardless of the circumstances.
The system is expected to be commercially available in the third quarter of 2023, providing an upgrade option for existing small satcom system users with minimal downtime.
The advantages of 5G for advanced air mobility and uncrewed systems lie in its low latency and high data rate capabilities. Hedden compared cellular networks to satellite communication networks, stating that cellular networks offer lower latency and higher data rates, making them ideal for data transfers. He mentions that the European Union is building a continental 5G network focused on supporting air mobility and UAVs, which provides a significant footprint for connectivity.
With 5G, he explained that it becomes possible to monitor every aspect of a platform, similar to flight safety services in commercial airlines. Unlike traditional communication links that have limitations on data rates, 5G can transmit telemetry data in great detail, allowing operators on the ground to have a similar level of information as someone physically flying the platform.
The low latency of 5G, measured in milliseconds, combined with the high data rates in hundreds of megabits per second or even gigabytes per second, opens up new possibilities. Hedden suggests that with this level of connectivity, it may be feasible to have multiple uncrewed platforms that can be operated simultaneously by a single operator.