One if by air, two if by E (mail)

For folks who think they have reached the height of '90s technology by sending electronic mail from their cars, the Air Force Air Mobility Command has just one-upped them, signing a $6 million contract to provide e-mail directly to the cockpit of more than 300 cargo aircraft.

Maj. Steven Herring, deputy chief of AMC's Technology Branch, said the new system will provide AMC with "improved capabilities" to manage its globe-girdling fleet of aircraft. Herring said AMC decided to pursue the e-mail route because its current method of communications with airborne aircraft, high-frequency radio, "is unreliable in certain areas of the world."

Through the use of L-band service on International Maritime Satellite Organization (Inmarsat) satellites, AMC will be able to send and receive e-mail from the cockpit crews of 309 C-5, C-141 and KC-10 tanker aircraft operating anywhere in the world.

The e-mail system will allow personnel at AMC's Scott Air Force Base, Ill., Tanker Airlift Control Center to use their standard office e-mail systems to communicate with the aircraft, Herring said.

LandSea Systems Inc., Virginia Beach, Va., won the contract for the satellite communications gear, Herring said, while Systems and Process Engineering Corp. (SPEC) of Austin, Texas, has the contract to develop software for the system. AMC has already purchased 150 VERSA-V laptop computers from NEC for use by aircrews, and it plans to purchase another 190 laptops in the near future.

Besides serving as terminals for the e-mail system, Herring said, AMC loaded the laptops with a standard suite of office automation software at the request of the crews.

Ken Ravenna, vice president of marketing for LandSea, said his company will provide Inmarsat L-band transceivers and antennas produced by Thrane and Thrane of Denmark "because they are the only company in the world that manufactures [them]." Ravenna said the AMC contract represents the largest single order ever placed for this type of Inmarsat transceiver, used primarily by corporate jets.

Ravenna added that the transceivers AMC plans to install operate at a low data rate, 600 bit/sec, but a higher bit/sec rate would mean "much higher costs for the Air Force. Right now they're looking at a $20,000 to $25,000 piece of equipment. If they wanted to go to a higher [bit/sec rate], the hardware alone would cost them about $400,000 per aircraft."

An AMC spokesman said the command will also save money on message traffic, with the cost of a typical e-mail running from "16 cents to $2.33 per message, depending on whether it's a [Continental United States] message or one sent overseas. The cost also depends on the length of the message, with a long overseas message costing the most." This compares with a rate of just more than six dollars a minute that the Defense Department pays for Inmarsat voice service.

In addition to handling e-mail, Ravenna said, the Thrane and Thrane transceivers also come equipped with a built-in Global Positioning System receiver, allowing the crews to send automatic position reports along with their messages.

Herring said installation of the transceivers will start next month, with all 309 aircraft being equipped by May 1998. Ravenna said AMC has already installed two prototypes in each of the three classes of aircraft.

John O'Connor, director of applied information systems at SPEC, said his company will develop canned messages for the AMC e-mail system that will "easily allow aircrews to fill in the blanks on a template."

These include an on-station report, a "block out" message that indicates an aircraft has started taxiing, a departure message and a "three-hour out" template that will alert a destination airport to passengers on board.

O'Connor said each of these messages will be stamped with the date and time as well as the aircraft's position, automatically derived from the built-in GPS receiver.

Herring added that in addition to these four templates, crews will also be able to generate their own text messages.

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