Electronics for the well equipped cabin

 - October 9, 2006, 9:04 AM

We live in a brave new world of constant connection, to our homes, offices, business acquaintances, friends and family. We’re connected by our cellphones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), laptops and Blackberries. And that’s the way we want it, in the air as well as on the ground.

The “gotta-have-it” customer list these days usually starts with high-speed datalink, and the leader at this point appears to be Swift64, launched a few years ago by satellite communication specialist Inmarsat. The service can deliver in-flight Internet connection speeds of as high as 64 kbps for single-channel systems and 128 kbps and higher when two channels are bonded. But it’s not cheap, and the prices vary.

An entry-level system starts at about $150,000 for an onboard data terminal and climbs by a few hundred thousand dollars with the addition of extra equipment such as a satcom antenna, satcom transceiver, network file server, router, wireless hub, data ports and so on. And there are air-time charges, generally about $10 a minute.

Those willing to wait for faster connection speeds may want to wait for Inmarsat to deploy its next-generation satellite data service called SwiftBroadband. The first Inmarsat-4 satellite went up in March, a six-ton behemoth capable of delivering broadband service over all major flight routes. A second I-4 satellite is scheduled for launch this fall and at that point the system will provide coverage for about 85 percent of the earth. A third I-4 satellite is planned for the Pacific, which will give SwiftBroadband near-global coverage.

Thrane & Thrane is already looking forward to Inmarsat’s new system. At the European Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (EBACE) in Geneva in May, the Danish satellite communication specialist introduced a flexible approach to its established two-box Aero-HSD+ Inmarsat system. It will allow customers to specify the level of capability desired and to upgrade as their needs evolve.

The package starts with six-MCU (modular concept unit) boxes for two channels of voice, one of packet data and one of Swift64 high-speed datalink. Adding a two-MCU, high-speed unit to the basic satellite data unit (SDU) and high-power amplifier provides another Swift64 channel. A built-in PBX enables the user to connect six handsets directly to the system.

The user can select any combination of voice, fax, cockpit and high-speed data from a single Swift64 channel at a list price of $78,500. The full five-channel system will cost $232,000. An application-specific upgrade to the SDU will enable it to support two 432-kbps Swift64 broadband channels when the new Inmarsat service becomes available.

Rockwell Collins is also very much in the race and in May obtained an experimental license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to deploy and test its eXchange broadband connection for business aircraft. Part of a strategic agreement with Connexion by Boeing, the system combines Rockwell Collins’s Tailwind 550 satellite-direct television antenna and signal processing technology with the broadband service of Connexion by Boeing. It will allow real-time, near-global, two-way Ku-band data coverage.

Passengers will be able to use eXchange to access the Internet and firewall-protected corporate intranets, send and receive, get news, weather or destination information, or view satellite-direct television programming. Bombardier’s Global 5000 and Global XRS will be the launch aircraft. Certification of exchange is expected later this year.

Equally market-hungry, EMS Satcom of Ottawa was showing its HS-400 HDS terminal at EBACE, claiming the unit is the only single-LRU Swift64 box available. In the near future, EMS Satcom expects to offer four channels instead of two, capable of upgrading to the 432-kbps Swift64 Broadband service. The single-LRU (line replaceable unit) is already operational in Europe on Boeing Business Jets and Airbus Corporate Jetliners (ACJs). EMS says it has seen growing interest for the terminal from Bombardier, Dassault and Gulfstream. (See “Jet Aviation installs EMS in Falcon 900,” page 22.)

At EBACE, AirCell offered a sneak preview of Axxess, its own wireless data hardware package for business aircraft and claimed it will allow passengers to talk on wireless “smart phones,” surf the Internet on their wireless PDAs and laptops, and at some point, use their personal cellphones to place calls in flight.

The system will create wireless “hotspots” by installing special transceiver modules, WiFi cabin antennas and wireless interfaces inside the cabin.

Basic Axxess will include two Iridium channels, expansion capability to as many as four Swift64 channels, voice-over-IP compatibility, graphic weather delivery and fax service. A spokesman said the price of the basic hardware package would start at about $40,000.

Inflight Use of Personal Cellphones Near

In May, the completion and refurbishment industry welcomed news of services that would allow passengers to use their cellphones in flight.

At the NBAA Convention in New Orleans in November, AirCell expects to provide an update on its efforts to launch an airborne system and ground network that will permit passengers in U.S. airspace the in-flight use of cellphones. The company was expecting to begin flight demonstrations of a prototype system last month. Unlike similar projects that would route calls through a satellite array, the AirCell system would use modified existing cellular towers on major flight routes across the U.S.

Preparing for the day when aircraft passengers are allowed to use their cellphones in flight, Arinc and Telenor created AeroMobile earlier this year. Intended initially for airline customers, the system can be adapted for the business aviation market as well.

It would cost no more than $100,000 to install on each aircraft and users would pay about $3.50 per minute for calls and about $1 per text message.

In the U.S., the FCC prohibits in-flight use of cellphones. But the agency would approve the technology being envisioned because it would not interfere with aircraft cockpit avionics or other cellphone users on the ground, according to its design engineers.

The technology calls for a receiver that would instruct the user’s cellphone to go to its lowest power setting, thereby preventing airborne calls from interfering with users on the ground or with cockpit avionics.

So-called “pico” cells would form a mini-mobile cell system in the cabin, replicating the ground-based GSM network and translate the GSM voice call into a format that can be sent to ground stations via the relatively narrow band of the aircraft’s satcom system.

Satellite-direct Televisionat an Affordable Price?

Flight Display Systems (FDS) of Alpharetta, Ga., is working to bring to market an in-flight entertainment system–Ellipse Direct–priced at less than $100,000.

The company says the hardware package will sell for one-third the price of competing satellite-direct receiving systems and will fit on smaller aircraft, even helicopters. The heart of the 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 legs in a configuration similar to that used by military AWACS aircraft. Any performance penalties, say the designers, would be comparable to those of conventional blister-type radomes.

The company has been testing the Ellipse Direct system on a Challenger 600 since November, satisfying the FAA with regard to icing and structural integrity. The company has completed all the tests and documentation. An STC allowing installation in the Challenger 600, 601 and 604 is expected this summer. FDS president David Gray said the system will deliver DirecTV to virtually any business aircraft, “even single-engine turboprops such as the Pilatus PC-12 and Cessna Caravan.”

Big-screen No Longer Means Gas Plasma

In recent years, buyers of larger business jets were partial to gas plasma monitors for one simple reason: they were bigger–up to 42 inches–and bigger was better. But plasma screens were also heavier, drew more power, generated far more heat and tended to react badly to rapid changes in altitude. So what if they cost $20,000 to $25,000? They were bigger, and you don’t spend $40 or $50 million on a big airplane and watch satellite-direct television on a small screen.

That’s changing, said Andy Beers, v-p of sales and marketing at the Little Rock, Ark. offices of Rosen Aviation Displays.

Liquid crystal display (LCD) units produce a better picture. The pixels are more compact, providing better resolution, and it is now possible to produce larger screens. Rosen is now evaluating several 42-inch LCD monitors, and Beers believes that one day, “LCD technology will dominate the large-screen market.” The price is expected to be “a little more expensive than a comparable plasma screen,” but that is expected to decrease as demand increases.

More important than choosing LCD or plasma is getting the best signal to the monitor. “Most of the monitors available, LCD or plasma, are made to receive high-resolution video signals,” said Beers, “and the equipment from most of the cabin management system providers doesn’t permit distribution of high-resolution output.”

There seems little doubt that the industry is moving toward a business aircraft cabin in which all elements of the electronic architecture are linked through a cabin-management system that is reliable, easy to maintain and user-friendly.

Ethernet Backbone

The future appears to be an Ethernet backbone with a single loop through which all the applications operate. According to Eric Olson, marketing lead for Honeywell cabin products, “It will mean easier installation and easier maintenance. For the user, it will mean higher speeds, better clarity, more byte information and greater reliability. It takes the entire cabin [electronic] architecture and makes it digital.”

It was with this in mind that PGA Avionics of Chateauroux, France, delivered its first Paradize II “advanced cabin management system,” already in service on board an executive Airbus A330.

According to the company, the system links all the airplane’s in-flight entertainment and cabin lighting components, including audiovisual systems, DVD, CD and external video cameras, satellite-direct television, high-definition monitors and individual reading lights and cabin “mood lighting.”

Elsewhere, Intheairnet purchased all the outstanding shares of IEC Inflight Systems stock last year, including the UK-based cabin systems integrator’s entertainment and cabin control systems for executive widebody aircraft.

At the time, the company said the acquisition would allow IEC to “seamlessly add our integrated solutions to increase customers’ technology choices, while opening new markets for Intheairnet.”

It will take the form of a fully digital Ethernet system, with the unlikely but amusing acronym “Nawtie.” The company has completed testing of the system on a Challenger 604 provided by GE Corporate Air Transport and hopes to have “a fully functioning unit and certification” in time for the NBAA Convention in November.

In the end, completion and refurbishment centers, while running to keep pace with all the new electronic technology, available now and in the near future, are looking forward to such cabin-management systems.

“We’re spending a lot of time on cabin-management systems,” said Olson. “We’re adding so many things so quickly that it makes the challenge of producing a user-friendly cabin-management system that much more difficult.”