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SkyFive: Broadband Internet Above the Clouds

Autonomous and digitized aviation requires internet access. Until now, satellites have been used for data connections in airplanes. The Munich Startup SkyFive is developing cheaper and faster data connections to the ground. The three founders Thorsten Robrecht, Dirk Lindemeier and Michael Ohm introduce their company in our interview.

Munich Startup: Who are you and what do you do? Please introduce yourselves!

SkyFive: SkyFive is bringing broadband internet to one of the last blank areas on the planet: The sky, which is where we’re spreading out a huge grid of mobile cells that airplanes, helicopters and drones can log into. The three of us founders – Thorsten Robrecht, Dirk Lindemeier, Michael Ohm – already worked on the subject at the telecommunications group Nokia and then turned it into our own company as part of a management buyout in 2019. Before his time at Nokia, Thorsten was responsible for avionic development at Airbus/Eurocopter, Dirk gained hands-on experience in aeronautical communication as a German air force officer on board reconnaissance aircrafts, and Michael is our brilliant inventor, who is developing the technology and got it to the point of commercial maturity.

“Air-to-ground” instead of satellite connections

Munich Startup: What problem does your startup solve?

SkyFive: Digitization requires data, and data requires a data connection – and that’s also true in aviation. Until now, it was only possible to generate these data connections with satellites from a distance of 36,000 kilometers, which is slow and expensive. Anyone who has tried to use the expensive WiFi services on a plane knows what we mean. You can also easily spot the necessary antennae as a kind of “hump” on the body of the plane.

Our solution, in contrast, comes from the ground from a distance of 10 kilometers, with a much higher bandwidth, real-time transmission and an antenna no bigger than a coffee mug. And the costs are very low, since we rely on standard mobile communication technology and its economies of scale. The term that’s been adopted for this approach is “air-to-ground” (A2G). By using A2G, all aircraft will have a real broadband connection for the first time!

Munich Startup: But that’s nothing out of the box!

SkyFive: It’s true, our solution has indeed already been in use in Europe for two years and is run successfully under the name of “European Aviation Network” by our customers Inmarsat and Deutsche Telekom. To date, just shy of 300 airplanes in the Airbus A320 family have been retrofitted to be able to log into the network and offer passengers a fast internet connection at minimum cost.

Munich Startup: What have been your three biggest challenges so far?

SkyFive: First, the above-mentioned management buyout, which was surprisingly more complex and drawn out than expected. Second, the corona crisis, which has hit airlines (meaning our clients) extremely hard. And third, establishing our business all over the world without being able to travel to the destinations ourselves.

SkyFive: “Were able to kick off a whole series of promising customer projects in 2020 despite the corona crisis”

Munich Startup: Where would you like to be in one year, and where in five years?

SkyFive: In one year, we want to have the next networks up and running beyond Europe, either in Asia or the Middle East. In five years, we want to be the biggest service provider of inflight connectivity worldwide based on the volume of transmitted data.

Munich Startup: What do you think about Munich as a startup location?

SkyFive: We’re located in the southern part of the city, right next to our partner Airbus. There’s a very active aerospace scene in Munich and the surrounding area, and the Bavarian government also takes care of our industry, which means we all feel very much at home here.

Munich Startup: Hidden champion or shooting star?

SkyFive: Let’s say rising star. We were able to kick off a whole series of promising customer projects in 2020 despite the corona crisis. Now more than ever, airlines are looking for ways to run their fleets more efficiently and to tap into new sources of income. Our ultrafast data connections for airplanes make a wide range of digital applications possible that aim to do just that, and does so at costs that are so low that entire fleets will finally be able to go online.