MORRISVILLE — SmartSky Networks of Morrisville is taking off – pun intended. The company, founded in 2011 as Jetpool Ventures, has shared lots of news in the last few weeks.
SmartSky offers two main products. Its first focus is on network connectivity for inflight aircraft. Using its patented “beamforming” technology, the company is able to offer reliable, secure, and uninterrupted network access while in the air. With that achieved, the company also offers Skytelligence, a platform for collecting and sharing data critical to the plane in flight. Skytelligence includes APIs [application programming interface] for collecting and sharing flight data, location information, turbulence data, and much more.
In fact, it’s the Skytelligence Predictive Weather Suite that has garnered many recent announcements. Only this month SmartSky has announced connections with three weather prediction tools, including FLASH Weather AI, an artificial intelligence tool for predicting lightning strikes. According to SmarkSky’s President and co-founder Ryan Stone, it’s pretty impressive.”
“Over 90% accuracy in predicting first strikes within 15 to 25 minutes for your particular area,” Stone said on our call. “They can also give you the all-clear and that way you can get back to operations faster. Or let’s say you’re at an adjacent airport when all of a sudden the airplanes that were going to Charlotte, maybe they need to divert to Raleigh. It would be nice to know in Raleigh that’s about to happen.”
Stone is accustomed to thinking about what solutions might be needed on an aircraft. His first company was a private jet charter company that has its roots in a class project down the street at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Stone and several classmates ultimately turned that project into a company, today called DaVinci Jets, which manages aircraft for Fortune 500 companies and high net-worth individuals.
It was several years into that endeavor that Stone was faced with the task of getting internet onto his airplanes and found it fraught with challenges.
“Clients wanted [internet] in their airplanes. And we had to break the news to them that while we could now get it for them it would be based on decades-old technology and it would be slow and really expensive. And their comment back was, ‘Well, when you find something that’s fast and less expensive, we’re in but until then forget it.’ And so that set us out on a quest to try to solve our customer’s problem.”
In 2011, Stone began that quest with SmartSky. Access to the internet requires access to the wireless spectrum. That’s complicated; as a limited commodity, the cost of that spectrum has become prohibitively expensive. Previous rounds of bidding for space on the wireless spectrum extended into the tens of billions of dollars.
“If you wanted to buy the spectrum and use it for aviation, it literally would be unaffordable,” explained Stone. “The innovation that our patents support is the idea of reusing the Wi-Fi band, the 2.4 gigahertz band that we use in homes or offices. That’s what our patent portfolio enables us to do in the air.”
It’s taken more than 10 years to find that solution, patent it, and build a nationwide network. The company has also been working through aviation certifications that will allow its devices to be installed on specific models of aircraft. It’s only in the past year that the company has begun marketing and commercialization. One of this month’s announcements includes an agreement to equip a full fleet of HondaJet aircraft managed by Volato, a private aviation company.
“We are looking at what’s ahead, so expansion to Canada, Caribbean, Mexico, and other locales,” confirmed Stone. “But after going through that major build effort, the primary focus is to add customers.”
The potential benefits offered by accurate data going to and from a plane midflight are numerous. In addition to weather data, the Skytelligence system can also offer information on other flights, ground activities, and updates that might impact a plane’s route. With the use of this data and aided by AI, the Skytelligence system can provide vast improvements in the flight experience and economics.
“Once you have access to better data, you can use that to have more optimum flight paths and more efficient routing,” said Stone. “And the next thing you know, you’re not just getting internet to the back of the cabin, you’re also saving 5% to 10% on how much fuel you burn, and therefore how much carbon you emit so there’s a sustainability element to it, too.”
While the company is talking to commercial airlines about the use of its tech, the customer base remains primarily private jets. These aircraft often have a more compelling need for connectivity to conduct business in the air. Commercial airlines won’t allow phone calls, but a private jet passenger may be using their phone while on a conference call and sending emails.
Despite the current status quo, the SmartSky tech is likely to make it to commercial applications at some point – if not for inflight connectivity, for next-generation flight management.
The future of flight
SmartSky has partnered with others to test the boundaries of their tech for the next generation of flight planning. One such project, made possible by a NASA Innovation Award, involved a partnership with GE Aviation and Mosaic ATM. Together the companies worked on a cloud-based Flight Management System (FMS) that provided air traffic controllers more real-time data for greater accuracy and improved sustainability.
“This paves the way for all the things you may be reading about with Advanced Air Mobility and electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft and all that. For the airspace to work you’re going to need tools like this. So we’re sort of paving the way for the future of air traffic in that way.”
Stone expects to be certified on nearly 15,000 aircraft by year-end and SmartSky is continuing to add to its collection of patents, with 292 and counting. While the company might not be a household name, it is certainly poised to become a go-to solution in the world of aviation.