The next generation of cabin entertainment is here

 - September 14, 2006, 10:48 AM

If the customer has it in his home or in his office, he wants it in the cabin of his business aircraft. This demand is driving the communication and entertainment cabin technology that’s just become available and the new gear soon to follow.

A major battle for market share is going on in the realm of cabin communications, in
particular high-speed satcom data connectivity.

Large-cabin aircraft buyers have at least heard of Inmarsat’s Swift64 data service, the basic option for an airborne datalink system. Now, coming soon to a cabin near you is SwiftBroadband, which features 432 kilobytes per second (kbps) of data transfer. But at about $400,000 for hardware alone, it’s not cheap.

SwiftBroadband is scheduled to enter service by year-end, powered by Inmarsat’s new I-4 satellites. The geostationary orbits of the satellite array will provide coverage to 98 percent of the world’s population.

To accompany SwiftBroadband, Rockwell Collins has introduced its next-generation high-speed receivers–the HST-2110 and HST-2120. Both will support one 432-kbps SwiftBroadband channel when the service becomes available later this year. With Rockwell’s SAT-611 or SAT-906 systems, simultaneous operation of voice and high-speed data channels will be possible.

Honeywell and Thales have teamed to produce an upgrade version of its HD-128 for SwiftBroadband. It is a form/fit replacement compatible with any aircraft that is already equipped with a Honeywell satcom installation.

EMS Satcom has its own SwiftBroadband software upgrade of the eNfusion HSD-400 and HSD-440 high-speed data terminals. It is based on the eNfusion HSD-128 and HSD-400 terminals. The upgrade will be available in the fall.

Chelton Satcom’s SDU-7300 two-channel satellite modem Swift64 kit is bondable up to 128 kbps and comes with integrated router and HPA-7400 high-power amplifier. It is upgradable to SwiftBroadband, and the company is saying it will be available when the SwiftBroadband service is available. More details are likely at the Farnborough International Air Show this month.

Danish cabin electronics specialist Thrane & Thrane expects to have its own SwiftBroadband solution–Aero SBB+–ready when the service is operational. The system will provide up to four voice channels, up to two SwiftBroadband channels and as many as two ISDN channels, as well as cockpit data, built-in PBX and one Swift64 backup channel. Thrane & Thrane customers who already have an Aero HSD+ five-channel system will be able to upgrade.

The pending SwiftBroadband service has spawned a new, compact satellite communication antenna from CMC Electronics for super-midsize and large business jets. Dubbed SatLite, it supports Inmarsat Aero-H/H+, Swift64 and SwiftBroadband satellite communication services. The top-mounted, low-profile antenna is expected to enter service this summer.

Chelton currently offers the HGA-7000 high-gain satcom antenna system. As with the company’s SDU-7300 modem, it will be upgradable for SwiftBroadband “when the Inmarsat system is available.”

The EMS Satcom antenna–eNfusion AMT-3800–is a high-gain package, also designed to be installed atop the fuselage. Originally designed for smaller business jets, it is touted by EMS as a good fit for large-cabin aircraft as well. In fact, Bombardier has selected it as a factory option for its Global Express XRS and Global 5000.

Two other high-speed Internet connection choices– from Bombardier and Gulfstream–offer faster connection speeds in the form of true in-flight broadband service. Both have agreements with hardware and service providers and they will not only be fast, but the per-minute cost will be lower than SwiftBroadband’s.

Connection speed peaks at five megabytes-per-second with Bombardier’s eXchange service, about that of a home cable modem or DSL line. The hardware is from Rockwell Collins and it employs Boeing Connexion satellite data service.

Packaged as part of the Rockwell Collins Airshow 21 cabin management suite in the Global Express XRS and the Global 5000, the hardware needed to watch satellite-direct television and get connected to the Web is about $1 million. That doesn’t include the cost of the Inmarsat satcom system, nor does it cover extras such as wireless cabin networking or monitors. It does include the satellite antenna, a two-channel DBS television receiver, the data router and installation. The first eXchange system will enter service this summer on a new Global Express XRS. Bombardier is also installing eXchange on one of its demonstration aircraft.

Gulfstream is promoting download connection speeds from about 700 kbps to 1 mbps with its Broad Band Multi Link (BBML). It promises data speeds as high as 3.5 mbps and minimum download speeds of 512 kbps. Arinc provides the hardware.

Gulfstream says the BBML hardware runs about $650,000 installed. The coverage area of the Arinc Skylink Ku-band satellite data service encompasses North America
and Hawaii via a single satellite, and the North Atlantic and Europe using another.

Gulfstream’s BBML is offered on the G350, G450 and G550. Equipment includes a dish antenna, antenna controller, local area network switching unit/transceiver router, and the exclusive Gulfstream file server. Owners of GVs and G500s can opt to have BBML hardware installed as a retrofit.

Satcom Direct of Satellite Beach, Fla., has introduced a new service called International Global One, or iGon, allowing customers to use “home-country” telephone number prefixes when traveling. The Satcom Direct service cuts through what is often a cumbersome and confusing process by providing a single satcom telephone number that includes the country code, following by a certain number of digits, just like a regular phone number. The annual fee for the services is $975. Per-minute charges for Inmarsat satcom calls are extra, generally about $8 per minute.

Keeping the Passengers Entertained

Cabin entertainment technology continues to grow to meet passenger demand for a pleasant way of passing the time, and today, virtually every feature available on the ground–such as satellite-direct television, on-demand audio and video, XM Satellite Radio, iPod ports and high-definition monitors–is now available in the air.

LCD technology continues to improve, with a 42-inch LCD screen now available from Flight Display Systems of Alpharetta, Ga., for $17,500. Several suppliers are working on 56-inch LCD monitors that could become available within the next year.

Moving-map displays are more detailed than ever. A system from Lufthansa Technik of Hamburg, Germany, provides satellite imagery rather than the old high-school textbook map. Rosen Aviation Displays’ RosenView offers zoom levels and points-of-interest icons, as well as customized cabin briefings. The new moving map from Flight Display Systems has a solid-state disk drive and embedded operating system and can be customized by using a USB thumb drive and keyboard included with the product installation kit. Local waypoints, company logos and “Welcome Aboard” screens are some of the possible enhancements. JetMap II from Honeywell shows areas of sunlight and darkness across the earth’s surface and features a 14-level zoom and street-level maps of select cities in the U.S.

More and more shops are offering entertainment systems as a fully integrated package. Stevens Aviation in Greenville, S.C., offers its Elite in-flight customized entertainment system with CD and DVD players, satellite radio, moving-map display and high-resolution monitors. With the smaller business aircraft in mind, a pyramid-shaped cabin option is available, “allowing installation in an aircraft in which existing cabinetry does not afford space to house the system.” Stevens claims it is about $20,000 less than any competitor’s comparable package.

New entertainment technology is rapidly entering service. Bombardier Aerospace in May announced that Lufthansa Technik had completed the first Rockwell Collins Tailwind 500 satellite live television system in Europe on a Global Express. A joint effort by Bombardier, Lufthansa and Rockwell Collins allows Challengers and Globals to upgrade their current cabin entertainment system to include satellite-direct television.

A spokesman for Gulfstream said the company is not surprised by the emphasis customers place on the ability to stay in touch. Eighty percent of Gulfstream customers, he said, are multinational corporations, 15 percent are government or government agency users, and 5 percent are wealthy individuals who use their airplane for work. “If you’re flying 14 hours and you’re a businessman, you can’t afford to be out of touch for that long. And if you are, it should be your choice.”

But for the OEMs, said one completion center executive, the question has become how much of these expensive communication and entertainment items to offer as standard equipment on the airplane.

“When you load up an airplane with systems that may cost well over $1 million, you can quickly start to push the customer’s spending limit.”

Cindy Halsey, Cessna Aircraft’s v-p of interior design, engineering and development, said more customers now seem to be saying, “Show me the basic airplane and let’s work from there.”

The new Mustang very light jet is an example. Customers Cessna surveyed before designing the aircraft said anything installed as part of the package would be outdated by the time the airplane was delivered. “Just build in the capability.” So, said Halsey, “The airplanes are being pre-wired for XM radio as an option, and it has been well received.

“But customers don’t want to pay for something they don’t want and won’t use.”