Inmarsat targets eVTOL market with Supernal partnership

Deal Handshake

Satellite provider Inmarsat wants to capitalise on the growing demand for commercial unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) services.

The company on Tuesday partnered with Supernal, a company owned by Korean car maker Hyundai that is developing electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. Similarly to a helicopter, its first passenger aircraft is designed to provide short-haul flights of around 30 miles for a small number of passengers. It has a pilot seat, but the company is also including in the design all the technology needed to enable automated flight, so that when the era of unmanned passenger flight dawns, Supernal will be right there from day one.

This is where the Inmarsat partnership comes in. Supernal will connect its eVTOL to the former’s Velaris comms service. It runs on Inmarsat’s Elera L-band satellite network, and has been designed to address the UAV market, specifically the beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) side of it.

BVLOS is one of the big sticking points for the commercial UAV market, because generally speaking, aviation authorities do not allow it, and if they do, it is only permitted in segregated airspace, also referred to sometimes as drone highways. That restricts the reach of unmanned passenger flights and by extension the potential of the whole market.

Inmarsat’s Velaris solution supports throughput of 320 Kbps, enough to carry real-time HD video and command and control (C2) data. The terminal, including the antenna, only weighs 300 grams, which is an important consideration in the nascent eVTOL market. Velaris also offers full UAV tracking and identification.

Together with Inmarsat, Supernal wants to put Velaris through its paces, conducting tests and sharing data in an effort to optimise hardware and network performance, paving the way for Verlaris’ integration with eVTOLs.

“Inmarsat is excited to be working with Supernal to lead the conversation around connectivity and communications for UAV, eVTOL and UAM vehicles,” said Joel Klooster, SVP of aircraft operations and safety, Inmarsat Aviation, in a statement. “We can deliver the safety services required to allow these vehicles to fly beyond visual line of sight operations and continually improve the customer experience.”

There is overlap here between this and what terrestrial network operators are trying to achieve with connected drone services. Only last week, for example, Nokia launched its drone-in-a-box solution, which promises to offer automated, BVLOS flights by enabling drones to connect to public or private 5G or LTE networks. Drones are comparable to eVTOLS when it comes to flight altitude and distance, so it will be interesting to see if any battle lines are drawn up between the satellite sector and the telecoms industry when it comes to sharing the commercial UAV connectivity market.

Meanwhile, the Supernal announcement was made the same day that Inmarsat’s proposed sale to rival Viasat cleared a crucial hurdle.

Following an in-depth Phase 2 investigation – which focused primarily on the $7.3 billion merger’s impact on the in-flight connectivity market – the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) gave its provisional approval in March.

The CMA on Tuesday gave its final, unconditional blessing of the deal.

“We’re delighted with the CMA’s decision to unconditionally clear the deal to acquire Inmarsat, as it represents a critical step in securing final approvals to complete this transaction,” said Mark Dankberg, chairman and CEO of Viasat, in a statement.

“The decision validates our position that the combination of our two companies will strengthen competition in a dynamic market that continues to attract substantial levels of investment and enables us to offer better services to our customers. Additionally, this deal will also create new high-skill technology jobs, deepen Viasat’s capabilities in the UK, and ultimately help to deliver the goals of the UK’s National Space Strategy,” he said.

“Today’s decision by the CMA to clear the Viasat-Inmarsat deal is hugely significant for the UK’s space ambitions and customers everywhere,” added Inmarsat CEO Rajeev Suri. “We would like to thank the CMA Independent Panel and Case Team for their diligent work on the review and for recognising that in today’s fast changing satellite communications sector the needs of customers will continue to be well served.”

Viasat and Inmarsat did not offer an expected completion date for the transaction because there are still some other regulatory hoops to jump through. The companies said they will provide updates on timing “as those processes continue.”


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