Icarus Instruments' SatTalk

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Airborne telephones are nothing new — they've been around for years, mostly in higher-end turbine equipment with the space to mount them and owners willing to pay the bills. And, airliners have been carrying passenger phones for more than a decade. Yet, "affordable" airborne telephone technology has been slow coming to the lighter end of the general aviation fleet. But, with the advent of the Iridium satellite system and the specialized cellular technologies, piston-twin and -single owners can benefit from an airborne telephone also. AVweb's Publisher, Carl Marbach, takes a look at this market as he prepares to install an Iridium-based system in his Aerostar.

ProductsMy first Aerostar, a 1974 600A, came equipped with a Wulfsberg Flightphone I. This was a manually-operated early model — "New York operator, this is QM-2602 I'd like to call 215-555-5575 please…" — and was only half-duplex. That meant only one person could speak at a time; "I'll be home at 6:30 ... over," I'd say to hear my wife reply, "…ner will be ready." She could never get the hang of waiting for me to release the transmit button before speaking.

At the time, I regularly flew from Boston to Philadelphia (where I lived) after a day's work in Beantown and, when I was over New York, I'd phone home to give a good estimate of my arrival time. I didn't use the phone very much, but it was nice to report in at the end of a long day. Every once in a while it was VERY useful: My wife and I were once delayed by a thunderstorm and we were able to call and tell the kids that Mom and Dad would be about an hour late. If it had better coverage and was more user-friendly, I'm sure we would have used it more.

Today, we don't think much about mobile communications. Nearly everyone seems to have a cellphone, but once in our airplanes we are out of normal communications until we land. The promise of better telephone communications in aircraft came from newer and better Wulfsberg FlightPhones, some which even had direct-dial capability. It wasn't unusual to see business or charter aircraft with phones installed. Inmarsat satellite phones offer better coverage and ease of use, but are very expensive to own, install and operate. Now, general aviation has some options that don't require and investment that costs more than many GA airplanes are worth.

Enter Icarus

The complete Icarus Iridium systmIcarus Instruments, of Takoma Park, Md., has introduced a product that innovatively connects a standard Kyocera SS-66K Iridium handset satellite phone to an aircraft's headset. Utilizing the 66 satellites of the Iridium constellation in low earth orbit, this system offers 24-hour-a-day coverage anywhere in the world. All it needs is clear view of the sky that can be ensured by the installation of a Sensor Systems Iridium antenna on top of your airplane. By utilizing a standard Iridium phone, the system's costs are kept to a record low $4,995, including the phone, interface and externally mounted TSO'd antenna. Service plans start at $14.95/month and $2.39/minute for all North American and Caribbean calls. While the per-minute charge is fairly steep, the cost of ownership and monthly cost is low enough to be of interest to a lot of GA airplane owners.

Here's How It Works...

The Kyocera Iridium phoneSatTalk allows you to engage in a satellite telephone call from your cockpit while seamlessly continuing to communicate with air traffic control. Your existing aviation headset is used for all telephone communications to ensure readability and normal ATC communications. Plug your headset and mic jacks into the Icarus Instrument SatTalk box, the SatTalk into the aircraft's headphone and mike jacks, and the cable from the SatTalk to the Iridium handset. Initiate a call using the handset. When the party answers your will hear them in your headset and may talk to them using the headset's microphone.

The audio interface plugs into the aircraft's intercom systemAfter you have established a satellite telephone connection, ATC may come on the frequency to talk to you or another pilot. SatTalk detects the incoming ATC audio and reduces the level of the sat phone audio so you can determine if the call from ATC is for you. If you then press your push-to-talk switch (PTT) and respond to the call from ATC, SatTalk sends a short pre-recorded announcement to the Iridium phone party telling them to "Standby for a moment." Meanwhile, you continue your ATC communications in private. When you are finished with ATC, you simply start talking without the PTT pressed and the Iridium call will continue normally. If the initial incoming ATC transmission is for another pilot, the Iridium audio level will resume its normal level as soon as the frequency is clear.

If you arrange with ATC to go off frequency for a while, SatTalk has an exclusive mode during which incoming ATC audio is ignored. This allows for an uninterrupted telephone conversation. This mode would also be used if a passenger were using the Iridium phone.

...Here's What It Is...

The Icarus SatTalk componentsSatTalk includes the Kyocera Iridium satellite telephone and lithium-ion battery, providing 100 minutes of talk time. Calls can be made from anywhere in the world at any altitude at any time. The phone can be easily removed for use outside the aircraft using its built-in antenna and battery.

Iridium is a satellite constellation of 66 low-earth orbit transponders that provide worldwide telephone coverage via Iridium phones and one of two service providers. Motorola or Stratos provides service for the Iridium constellation. Motorola can be reached at 800-232-6274 while you can find Stratos at 888-766-1313. Each Iridium phone comes with a slot for a SIM card. Each subscriber gets their own SIM card, which contains information about your service plan and your phone number. More than one person can share (and be separately billed for) an Iridium phone via separate SIM cards. Iridium got its name from the fact that the element iridium has 66 electrons circling its nucleus, the same number of satellites in the Iridium constellation.

...And What It Costs

Both of these service providers have multiple plans. Minimum plans include a monthly charge of less than $20 and per minute billing of between $2.50/minute and $3.79/minute depending on where you are and where you are calling. The lower rate applies to all of North America and the Caribbean. A more moderate plan is about $35/month with North American calls costing $1.89/minute. While certainly not as inexpensive as your cellphone, the price is about the same as I used to pay with the old, limited coverage, half-duplex Wulfsberg. I don't plan on idle chatter while en route, but having the capability to use the landline system while in the air should be useful.

SatTalk's Iridium antennaAdvantages of the Iridium system include worldwide coverage, transparent handoffs of calls from one satellite to another and portability — you can take the phone out of the airplane with you. You can send a text message up to 120 characters long to the phone via email or the Iridium Web page at no charge. One disadvantage: the company has not been profitable and filed for Chapter 11 financial restructuring in 1999. Recently, however, the company has been securing additional financing. For more information on Iridium, check the company's web site.

Other Options?

Wulfsberg has gone through a few corporate acquisitions in recent years. In 1997, AlliedSignal sold most of the company to Chelton, but apparently that did not include its FlightPhone line of business. With the recent acquisition of AlliedSignal by Honeywell, it's not clear where this product line might go. At any rate, Honeywell has its own airborne telephone system, the AIRSAT. Also, there is another provider that has a general aviation product. AirCell Inc. located in Louisville, Colo., has a unit that uses traditional cellular technology and agreements with local cellular providers. Aircell has technology that allows it to use regular cellular frequencies without polluting nearby cells because the signal is coming from a fast-moving airplane. AirCell equipment costs and usage are similar to those costs for Iridium. Aircell coverage is not continuous, even over the United States, and is non-existent over large bodies of water. The system as currently configured is permanently installed and not portable. While this reduces the number of wires in the cockpit, it does reduce the functionality of the system.

Icarus Instruments also makes other innovative electronics for general aviation. President Steve Silverman is a real help and a wealth of knowledge on many subjects, the latest of which is satellite telephonic communications from the cockpit.

AVweb will be installing and flying the SatTalk Iridium system as soon as we can get the antenna installed on our already-antenna-filled airplane. Look for more details on using and flying with this system in the near future.