2005 Aircraft Electronics Association Convention: AEA hosts record-setting show in Dallas

 - October 16, 2006, 7:41 AM

As it usually does, news from the cockpit avionics front featured prominently at the Aircraft Electronics Association’s annual convention, held this year April 27 to 30 in Grapevine, Texas. Manufacturers showed off their latest cockpit wares at the primarily dealer-attended event, from full glass flight decks to boxes designed to add capability to the glass displays. But the show wasn’t all about the cockpit–the latest cabin communications gear on display at manufacturers’ show-floor booths drew big crowds as well, with new wireless and mobile services for business aircraft garnering much of the attention.

On the wi-fi front, AirCell introduced Axxess, a wireless data hardware package for business aircraft cabins that the company said will let passengers talk on wireless “smart phones,” surf the Internet on their wireless PDAs and laptops and–at some point in the future–use their personal cellphones to place calls in flight.

“It’s like bringing Starbucks to the airplane,” said Dan Prosser, AirCell’s Western region sales manager, who provided details of the Axxess satcom hardware offering at a new-product introduction session on the convention’s opening day. Of course, Prosser didn’t mean passengers will be able to order espressos from the comfort of their cabin seats. He was referring instead to the wireless “hot spots” available at Starbucks locations throughout the country. The idea is to install special transceiver modules, wi-fi cabin antennas and wireless interfaces inside the airplane that will make the passengers’ communications experience seem much like a visit to the well known purveyor of specialty coffee drinks.

Data connection speeds through Axxess will depend on the type of satcom connection that is present on the aircraft, Aircell said. The basic Axxess package includes a two-channel Iridium phone for voice communications and low-speed (9.6 kbps) data, but buyers can add Inmarsat Swift64 hardware to the setup for faster data transfers. For voice communications, passengers will have the option of talking on the standard wired handsets that Aircell has sold for years, or they can use wireless phones that the company is introducing for the service.

The dealer preview of Axxess that Aircell gave at the show was just that: a preview only, with nothing more than a brochure outlining capabilities. Expect an official launch this fall at the NBAA Convention in New Orleans, a spokesman said. According to the materials available at the AEA show, Axxess will include the two Iridium channels, expansion capability to as many as four Swift64 channels, voice-over-IP compatibility, graphic weather delivery and fax service. According to the spokesman, price for the basic Axxess hardware package will start at about $40,000.

Airborne Cellphone Concepts Mature

Also in time for the NBAA Convention, Aircell should have news to report on its efforts to field an airborne system and ground network that will allow passengers to use their personal cellphones in flight, the spokesman said. Next month the company plans to begin flight demonstrations using a prototype of the system, which, unlike competing projects that route calls through satellites, will use existing cellular towers. Targeted for commercial deployment next year, the Aircell Broadband System will run calls through specially modified cell towers. The company claims operators will be able to install and operate the AirCell Broadband System at a “fraction of the cost” of satellite-based alternatives.

Aircell said the upcoming flight demonstrations will showcase an “advanced prototype” of the system aboard a business jet. Key components of the demonstration system will include:

• A broadband terrestrial air-to-ground link providing a high-speed connection from the aircraft to the ground. The link will use a limited number of ground cellular sites temporarily outfitted with special antennas and electronics under AirCell’s experimental license from the FCC. Data speeds will average 300 to 500 kbps, with peak speeds of 3.1 mbps, comparable to a typical wi-fi hotspot, according to Aircell;

• an Iridium satellite link that provides extended, global coverage for voice and low-speed data service when outside U.S. terrestrial coverage. This link can be integrated with the domestic broadband link, or serve as a stand-alone off-aircraft link outside the U.S., the company said;

• a cabin pico cell that will let demonstration participants place and receive calls on their own personal cellular phones;

• and a cabin telecommunications router providing high-speed, in-cabin wireless connectivity for wi-fi-equipped laptops (802.11b/g) and PDAs.

Aircell, of course, isn’t the only company that sees dollar signs in airborne cellphone connectivity. Honeywell representatives on hand at the show were also eager to talk about their company’s plans for products allowing airborne cellphone use. According to company representatives, Honeywell’s system would consist of a cellular base station on board the aircraft directing each phone aboard to adjust to its lowest possible power level. The Inmarsat satellite network would then link onboard cellphones with the standard cellphone network.

Honeywell said the system will support voice calls and text messaging in exactly the same way as land-based cellular networks. Incoming and outgoing calls will be charged to the subscriber’s existing calling plan and appear in the subscriber’s bill just like any other call, the company added. Honeywell’s airborne cellphone system will support the global GSM standard first, expanding to the U.S. CDMA standard as demand increases, according to a spokesman. The company tested the technology for the first time in its Citation V last August using a Swift64 satcom link. Testing showed no interference with ground systems, a key parameter for FCC approval, according to experts.

For Global Telecom,Satcom Still Reigns

Despite all the talk about airborne cell networks, traditional satcom remains the method of choice for voice calling and data services throughout much of the world. EMS Satcom of Ottawa has made a name for itself in the past few years selling its Swift 64-based high-speed-data satcom equipment, not only to aircraft operators but also to the likes of Honeywell and Rockwell Collins, which have been putting their names on certain boxes and selling them as their own.

EMS Satcom announced that Jet Aviation has installed the new eNfusion CNX cabin accelerator in a Falcon 900, bringing to more than a dozen the number of eNfusion systems installed since the product made its debut last year. The CNX system is a multifunction cabin network server that replaces a mix of off-the-shelf boxes with a fully aviation certified unit.

The system includes hubs, routers and 802.11g wireless access capability supporting multi-channel HSD data satcom systems. EMS Satcom claims the unit’s data compression techniques can increase Swift64 data throughput from between 100 and 400 percent. The 3-MCU unit weighs 12 pounds.

Danish satcom maker Thrane & Thrane, meanwhile, reported good progress on initial installations of the company’s high speed unit (HSU), an add-on product for its Aero-HSD+ Swift64-enabled data satcom system. The HSU adds a 64-kbps data channel to Aero-HSD+ for an overall bandwidth of 128 kbps. The first U.S. delivery of the HSU product was made in November for a Dassault Falcon 900EX, and since then the product has been selling as optional equipment in all new Falcons and the Gulfstream G200.

Inmarsat will next introduce to aviation users the SwiftBroadband network, providing single-channel connection speeds of 432 kbps. In March Inmarsat launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., the first of three new satellites to support the higher bandwidth service. A second satellite launch is planned for this summer, and the third satellite, intended for the Pacific Ocean region, will be put into orbit some time between next year and 2008. Initial SwiftBroadband services for aviation users are expected to be available next year.

Iridium Showing Signs of Vigor

Hardware manufacturers also appear to be bullish on the future of Iridium, with several companies touting satcom systems based on the back-from-the-brink satellite network. Honeywell introduced the Airsat II Iridium system, a dual-channel satcom contained in a single box that is less than half the weight and about a third the volume of the AirSat I system it replaces. The good news for buyers is that it will sell for about a third less.

According to Honeywell, AirSat II includes Iridium’s latest-generation transceiver and several new features for the aviation market. It will have dual channels for simultaneous voice or data. Buyers will be able to plug phones into an Ethernet jack or use wireless access from anywhere in the aircraft. AirSat II also will contain interfaces to support analog cabin communications devices, Honeywell said. And while the primary use of the AirSat II is for cabin communications, the unit will interface with the aircraft’s flight management system to allow data transfer with Honeywell’s Global Data Center.

Aircell continues to base its long-term strategy on the Iridium technology after its analog cellular network began disappearing with a strong push by cellular providers toward digital services. Aircell had obtained an FCC waiver that permitted its phone systems to place calls through analog-based cell towers equipped with special receivers, but cellular providers have all but abandoned the analog technology. The company sells a variety of Iridium-based phone systems.

Blue Sky Network, meanwhile, reported receipt of an STC and PMA for the D1000, an Iridium-based product developed to allow aircraft tracking and two-way messaging. The D1000 mobile terminal and SkyRouter server software form the company’s packet data network. This product/service combination provides near real-time flight tracking, two-way messaging between aircraft and the ground and user-defined position reporting for fleet management. On the ground, by logging on to www. SkyRouter.com, owners, fleet operators, dispatchers and corporate clients can track flights, send and receive data messages to and from aircraft, receive telemetric data and manage account and billing information.

Blue Sky Network’s D1000 terminal includes an embedded GPS, emergency backup battery and a single antenna feed for both GPS and Iridium signaling. The unit uses a standard Ethernet connection and internal Web server, which, when used with any browser-based device (PDA or laptop), allows passengers and crew to send and receive small e-mail messages.

The Iridium network consists of 66 in-service satellites, in addition to 12 on-orbit spares, but experts predict Iridium will need to replace the satellites within the next five to 10 years as they begin to show signs of age. Iridium has entered into preliminary discussions with satellite manufacturers about potential replacements for the company’s network and has said it plans to fund the endeavor on its own.

Motorola built and deployed the Iridium constellation in the late 1990s, but the global communications network failed to attract subscribers and quickly went bankrupt. The company that emerged from bankruptcy, Iridium Satellite, is reportedly generating more than $100 million annually and has surpassed 140,000 subscribers. Iridium plans to deploy replacements perhaps beginning as early as 2008.

Airborne TV System Certification Delayed

Flight Display Systems (FDS) had hoped to make the trip to the AEA Convention with fresh certification of the company’s less-than-$100,000 Ellipse Direct satellite TV system for business jets, but additional required testing has delayed TSO approval of the product indefinitely. According to company president David Gray, the FAA required engineers to perform a battery of additional flight and laboratory testing, which he said has been completed. The complete data package is now in the hands of the FAA, but Gray said that for now he does not want to provide a firm date for when the Ellipse Direct system will be certified.

“We kept telling people three weeks,” he said. “But three turned into three more weeks and pretty soon it was three months. We’ve stopped trying to guess when it will finally be certified.” When Flight Display Systems introduced the airborne TV system last September, it originally said the hardware would be certified by the end of last year.

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 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.

Cockpit Retrofits Make News

At the convention, Honeywell was showing a version of the Primus Epic CDS/R retrofit cockpit with integrated Jeppesen approach charts and airport diagrams. A small joystick cursor control device allows pilots to open and close menus, similar to Windows on a PC.

A scaled-down and less expensive version of Honeywell’s full-blown Primus Epic avionic system, the Epic CDS/R package is being certified in a variety of business airplanes as demand for the display retrofit picks up. Most recently Primus Epic CDS/R has been modified for the Piaggio Avanti. The cockpit planned for the Italian turboprop includes two primary flight displays (pilot and copilot) and a single multifunction display.

According to Honeywell, the Avanti system will come standard with FMZ-2000/CD-820 FMS; DL-950 data loader; Mark V/VII/VIII enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS); RVSM-certified AZ-960/950 air-data computers; Primus 880 weather radar; Primus II integrated radio system; and the LSZ-860 lightning sensor. The system will interface with the Avanti’s existing autopilot.

Optional items include: CAS 67 TCAS; Laseref inertial reference systems; GPS; MCS-7000 Aero-I and Aero-H+ satcom, Iridium-based Airsat 1 or Inmarsat-based SCS-100 satcom systems; AIS-100/2000 satellite television; and runway awareness and advisory system. The system comes as a complete retrofit package that includes a new central console, wiring harness and a new instrument panel.

Rockwell Collins says it is experiencing increased demand for its retrofit cockpit systems as well. After launching the Pro Line 21 Continuum avionics system a few years ago as a major business jet cockpit refurbishment, the company more recently has introduced a package called IDS-3000, which replaces displays and other components but leaves the original autopilot intact.

IDS-3000 is an integrated display retrofit package that includes active-matrix LCDs, sensors and software, but not the high price of a complete Pro Line 21 Continuum cockpit upgrade. Continuum is a roughly $2 million retrofit that essentially gives buyers a completely new avionics suite and autopilot. For operators who want to upgrade only to modern glass displays, the IDS-3000 is a better choice, said a Collins spokesman.

The initial market for the display retrofit has been Pro Line II airplanes equipped with Collins APS-85 autopilots. The launch application for IDS-3000 was in the Cessna Citation 500 series through an agreement with Garrett Aviation. Garrett has launched a Citation 501-series program incorporating IDS-3000 that includes two displays, RVSM-compliant air-data computer, WXR-800 weather radar, and the new integrated flight information system (IFIS), which allows pilots to call up navigation charts, weather data and other information on the displays.

Benefits of the IDS-3000 are lower cost of ownership, fast installation and the ability to upgrade to new capabilities, such as electronic charts, weather and enhanced moving maps, by installing an IFIS cockpit file server. Because IDS-3000 is an incremental upgrade concept that allows an operator to install a modern glass flight deck but keep the old autopilot, it will allow more operators to upgrade their current-generation cockpits, according to Rockwell Collins.

IS&S, a company that has made a lot of money in recent years selling equipment to operators upgrading for reduced vertical separation minimums (RVSM), is turning its attention to retrofit cockpit applications now that RVSM is in effect in North America. The company has developed a line of flat-panel displays measuring six by eight inches and including integrated air-data systems, which it will soon begin shipping to Lockheed Martin’s mod center in Greenville, S.C., for a Lockheed C-130 Hercules cockpit upgrade program. In addition, IS&S reported at the AEA Convention that it has signed a contract with an unnamed installer to fit its displays in King Air 200s and Beech 1900s and is exploring upgrade possibilities for a variety of business airplanes.

Avidyne Introduces FlightCenter Services

Avidyne announced the launch of its FlightCenter suite of datalink-enabled services for general aviation. The new Flight-Center services announced at the show are intended to provide flight tracking and two-way text messaging to operators flying with Avidyne avionics.

As described, password-protected access to a special Web site lets the aircraft owner (or anyone the owner provides with the password) view the aircraft’s real-time flight track and send and receive text from the aircraft while it is in flight. The service uses automatic position reports and downlink flight plan information to create and display map views of an airplane’s route of flight, including departure time, continually updated present position and estimated time of arrival.

The services are available in the air using Avidyne’s MultiLink-enabled FlightMax Entegra integrated cockpit and FlightMax EX500 and EX5000 multifunction displays. They are available  on the ground through any standard Internet connection.

FlightCenter’s two-way text messaging uses a Web interface from which text messages are sent to the airplane and displayed on the EX5000 or EX500 MFD. A visual cue appears on the MFD screen to alert the pilot that a text message has been received, and with a single touch of a button the pilot can view the message. The pilot can also send or respond to text messages using the EX500 or EX5000’s text interface.

FlightCenter is intended to offer fleet operators, aircraft owners, businesses and family members a quick and easy way to monitor an aircraft’s position and progress, and to deliver information to the pilot during a flight, said a spokesman.

Avidyne also showed the cockpit configuration that is now standard in the Piper Meridian turboprop. Featuring three 10.4-inch displays, the Entegra flight deck in the Meridian consists of pilot and copilot EXP5000 primary flight displays and EX5000 multifunction display. In addition to typical flight-pertinent infor-mation, the Entegra EXP5000 displays are also capable of showing primary engine instruments, integrated flight director command bars, pilot-selectable moving-map flight plan data, horizontal situation indicator, an RMI pointer and digital RMI readouts.

The Meridian system also includes dual integrated solid-state air-data and attitude/heading reference systems (ADAHRS), which replace the airplane’s orig-inal Meggitt equipment. Each EXP5000 is integrated with its own independent ADAHRS, although either ADAHRS may be selected for display in reversionary operations.

The radar-capable EX5000 MFD installed in the center of the panel in the Meridian provides a moving map showing GPS flight plan, topographic terrain, obstacles, major roads and rivers, special-use airspace, as well as lightning, traffic and terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS) views. The MFD also comes standard with the first implementation of the EMax engine instrumentation system for turbine engines. Options to the package include Avidyne’s MultiLink datalink, XM WX graphical weather and FlightCenter services, which provide flight tracking and two-way air-to-ground text messaging, and CMax Jeppesen JeppView electronic chart display.

Garmin ToutsXM Weather Receiver

Now that its G1000 glass cockpits are flying in scores of general aviation airplanes, Garmin used the AEA show to press one of the capabilities that it believes aircraft owners truly want: XM satellite weather. Garmin is now delivering the GDL 69 and GDL 69a datalink radios, which allow pilots to call up text and graphical weather on their Garmin multifunction units.

Compatible with the G1000 cockpit, MX20 MFD and GNS 430/530 radios, the GDL 69/69a is a remote box that connects to an XM antenna to provide uplink weather through the WxWorx service. The GDL 69a version can also receive XM audio programming through the MX20 display and soon through the G1000 cockpit, according to Garmin. The GDL 69 carries a list price of $4,995, and the 69a version sells for a list price of $5,775.

Garmin also used the show to tout the new iQue 3600a aviation-specific PDA, a Palm-powered handheld device with an integrated GPS receiver and moving map. The device can perform all the functions of a typical Palm PDA, and also operates as a Garmin handheld GPS when connected to a special docking cradle. The unit includes TAWS-like terrain pop-up alerts and a full Jeppesen navigation database. List price of the iQue PDA is $1,099.

Newcomers Make News

Aspen Avionics of Albuquerque, N.M., has introduced an MFD that is designed to slide into the panel in place of a vertical speed indicator (VSI). The AT300 display is compatible with virtually all panel-mounted GPS navigation systems, providing an easy upgrade to add color moving-map technology in light piston airplanes, the company said.

The unit offers a high-resolution sunlight-readable color LCD moving-map display that includes both top-view and side-view terrain presentations; a full-time vertical speed display; remote supplemental readout of GPS navigation data; and optional datalink weather information.

The unit presents a display of surrounding terrain and obstacles by showing terrain topology and man-made obstacles in shades of red, yellow and green, similar to TAWS. Instantaneous height above ground is also displayed whenever the aircraft is below 10,000 feet. The size and quality of the AT300 moving map area is somewhat smaller than that of typical GPS receiver screens but appears to be a good alternative in airplanes where space is tight.

The VSI on the left edge of the AT300 display provides a graphical indication of aircraft vertical speeds to plus or minus 2,000 fpm. A digital indicator supplements the graphical VSI display, providing a digital readout of vertical speeds up to a maximum value of 9,900 fpm.

The AT300 also will soon support WSI’s InFlight satellite broadcast weather service, which provides a continuous feed of aviation weather information to the cockpit. When available the AT300 will support the WSI Nowrad two-kilometer Doppler radar mosaic and graphical and text METARs. Displaying WSI data-link weather on the AT300 requires a subscription to the WSI InFlight weather service as well as installation of a WSI datalink weather receiver in the aircraft.

Another Albuquerque company that is doing interesting things these days is Sandia Aerospace. At the AEA Convention, the company introduced the SAC 7-35 air-data computer, a $1,871 sensor system designed to interface with the Garmin GNS 430 and 530 and other multifunction displays. Scheduled to start shipping in August, the ADC includes two RS232 air-data outputs and two RS232 pressure outputs and can calculate fuel flow and baro corrections.

Paperless Cockpit, the Memphis developer of electronic flight bag (EFB) hardware, said its latest FliteServ C3 electronic kneeboard will soon be approved for class-3 operations, allowing the unit to interface with flight management systems and show moving aircraft symbols on charts (currently the device is approved as a class-2 EFB). The remote FliteServ computer houses a 1.6-GHz Pentium Centrino processor in a small rugged box connected to either an 8.4- or 10-inch E-Board C3 touch screen. The company touted the display as being the first that does not get hot after prolonged use, making it ideal as an electronic kneeboard.