Upstart IFE company launches satellite TV 'for the rest of us'

 - October 8, 2007, 8:58 AM

Satellite TV for less than $100,000? That’s the deal being offered by in-flight entertainment specialist Flight Display Systems (FDS), an Alpharetta, Ga.-based cabin electronics manufacturer, which last month unveiled an all-new satellite TV system for business airplanes called Ellipse Direct.

The company said the hardware package will sell for one-third of the price of competing airborne satellite-direct receiving systems and will fit on a variety of aircraft, including light jets and turboprops.

The heart of the DirecTV-based system is a phased-array antenna originally developed for yachts and high-end mobile homes. FDS and its project partners have modified the mechanically steered antenna to fit airplane fuselages by placing it in a radome that sits on four aluminum posts in a configuration not unlike that used by military AWACS aircraft. Performance penalties are expected to be comparable to those of conventional radomes, according to FDS, which is partnering with two companies: The Maintenance Group of Atlanta to certify the system, and DAC International to distribute it. KVH Industries makes the antenna.

The $99,650 list price for the Ellipse Direct system includes the antenna, radome and satellite TV receiver (called the integrated control unit [ICU]), but not TV monitors or the cost of installation. Once the FAA awards STCs, fitting the antenna and ICU is estimated to take less than 100 hours, according to FDS. The system can be connected to any number of cabin monitors and includes a remote control.

The antenna itself weighs 70 pounds and measures 34 inches around and nine inches high. It sits in a fiberglass-honeycomb radome 14 inches off the fuselage to improve airflow. Fluid dynamics testing by aerodynamics researchers at Georgia Tech proved that the radome will not degrade performance more than conventional tail-mount radomes, FDS claimed. Airborne testing of the system aboard a Challenger 600 is just getting under way.

Providing Low-Cost Television Service
The Ellipse Direct concept is the vision of David Gray, who founded FDS to develop a line of lower-cost cabin in-flight entertainment products. So far the company has introduced about 30 products, including LCD video monitors, audio systems and moving-map programs. The two-channel TV offering is the company’s most ambitious project to date. Gray said he hopes the low acquisition price for Ellipse Direct hardware will entice business aircraft operators, OEMs and airlines that have so far balked at the comparable higher prices of systems currently available from Rockwell Collins’ Airshow division and Honeywell.

An added enticement is that the Ellipse Direct system can fit on a wider variety of aircraft than the competing systems, which are limited to only the largest business jets.

“The size of the aircraft does not make a difference,” Gray said. “We can install DirecTV on virtually any business-class aircraft, from Gulfstreams, Challengers and Falcons to Citations, Hawkers and even single-engine turboprops such as the Pilatus PC-12 and Cessna Caravan.”

The first STCs for Ellipse Direct will be in Challengers and Gulfstreams, with approvals to follow soon after in Hawkers, Learjets, Citations and at least one turboprop, according to Gray. The company plans to show the antenna later this month at the NBAA Convention in Las Vegas.

Gray said he expects to sell 75 systems in the first year of availability, and perhaps double that number in the second year.

“There has been a reluctance to install satellite TV because of the high price,” Gray said, “but realistically there is no reason TV should cost as much as it does. This is not rocket science. It’s just TV.”

During a ground demonstration of Ellipse Direct last month aboard the Challenger test airplane, the picture quality was exceptional. This installation included two of FDS’s bulkhead-mounted LCD monitors measuring 20 and 17 inches diagonally. Gray claims the signal strength of the Ellipse Direct antenna is greater than that used by competing systems because of its larger surface area. He added that testing on the ramp has shown the system’s ability to change heading at a rate of 40 degrees per second without signal disruption.

The interface unit supports two channels, meaning that passengers can watch two separate DirecTV channels simultaneously on different TV monitors. The system can be set up to receive any of DirecTV’s programming packages, including pay-per-view movies and sports packages. Ellipse Direct will work anywhere over the continental U.S.

The initial certification of the system in Challengers is expected by the end of this month, with product shipments to follow immediately after, Gray said. The Gulfstream series is next in line for flight-testing, and will be followed by STCs in other types at a rate of one every two months, he added.

The Maintenance Group is helping to develop the STC packages and will provide technical support to approved installers. It has been working for several months with FDS to develop a multiple STC data package for the entire Challenger product line, and in designing the STC kit has engineered an “installation-friendly product,” according to Dan Furlong, president of The Maintenance Group. During the process, engineers have developed unique tooling to measure the aircraft contour for each individual installation. “The result is that we have taken the guesswork out of the STC package,” Furlong said.