Cabin Electronics: Keeping passengers entertained

 - November 1, 2006, 3:31 AM

Three years ago satellite direct television was “gee whiz” equipment. Today it is almost standard on anything larger than a Falcon 50. Honeywell, with its AIS-2000 multi-region system, provides in-flight coverage in Europe, the Middle East and North America. But best of all, the modular cabinet design now allows the user to download software modules to shift from one coverage area to another in flight.

Looking ahead, Eric Olson, marketing lead for Honeywell cabin products, says high-definition television is also “on our roadmap.” As a product upgrade, it requires a smaller antenna and would be a nice fit for smaller aircraft but he added, “we need a price within the range that owners of smaller aircraft would accept.”

Olson waxed enthusiastic about the subject of satellite radio, in particular for owners of smaller aircraft. Honeywell already has an agreement with XM Satellite Radio. “All [the system] requires is a tiny GPS antenna and the passengers have access to hundreds of stations, CNN news, sports, music.” He also noted that XM Satellite Radio itself is working on a system that will carry video as well as audio feed.

A couple of years ago, Rockwell Collins bought cabin entertainment specialist Airshow and immediately began integrating the cabin electronics products of both companies to form Collins Airshow 21. The system is now standard or optional equipment on a large number of new business jets, including Bombardier’s Global 5000 and Global Express XRS; Dassault’s Falcon 900DX, 900EX and 7X; the Gulfstream G350, G450 and G550; and Raytheon’s Hawker 800XP and Hawker Horizon.

Tailwind 500 is the Collins Airshow 21 multiregion in-flight satellite television system for aircraft in the super-midsize category and larger. Like Honeywell’s AIS-2000, it receives signals from major Ku-band direct-broadcast satellites or digital- video broadcast satellite. It provides coverage of Europe, the Middle East and North America, with a total of 475 channels of satellite video and audio programming.

An interface with the aircraft navigation system allows Tailwind to determine its location automatically. Based on the configuration of onboard receivers and services, Tailwind 500 determines antenna direction, channel frequencies, polarization, and which satellite receivers to activate automatically.

Rapidly expanding is Intheairnet of Irvine, Calif. The company acquired the outstanding shares of UK-based IEC In-Flight Systems stock last summer and, in so doing, allowed for an expansion of its Conus DBS TV in-flight satellite television system to Europe and the Middle East. IEC has considerable experience providing cabin electronics for numerous head-of-state aircraft.

The Conus DBS TV consists of a Luneburg Lens antenna, radome, antenna control unit and Airnet DBS receiver unit. U.S. programming is provided by the Echostar dish network. An optional airnet media service (AMS) can provide content in areas out of range of television coverage and includes movies, moving-map display and audio programs.

Intheairnet chairman Michael Rogerson said that in designing the system engineers placed an emphasis on satellite acquisition and signal lock. The result is an antenna control unit that contains a library of all television signal satellite arrays, “so our antenna is not merely looking for the strongest signal, but actually looking for the origin of that signal, a point in the sky from which the signal originates. And we also built into it an interface with the aircraft’s inertial navigation system.”

DirecTV for Less than $100,000?

Those for whom price is an object when considering satellite direct television might want to wait for Ellipse Direct from Flight Display Systems of Alpharetta, Ga. The company announced the system last year as a DirecTV product priced at less than $100,000 and suited to business aircraft of any size. The company had been flight testing it on a Challenger 600, and hoped for certification in October. It was, in the words of Flight Display v-p Jay Healey, “an optimistic forecast. We provided the FAA with a stack of documentation more than a foot high, and it came back and asked for more: high-speed tests and icing tests. We lined up some guys from Bombardier to fly the aircraft…and we had to go to NASA for icing tests.”

The heart of Ellipse Direct is an elliptically shaped, dorsal-mounted, low-profile antenna–an off-the-shelf, phased array, mechanically steered device from KVH Industries. Healey won’t discuss price or the complexity of installation, except to say that “$99,650 is a lot less than the current satellite direct systems are going for,” and installation cost and downtime [will be] “significantly less.”

The good news about availability is that the company has completed all the tests and documentation the FAA demanded and expected an STC that will cover the Challenger 600, 601 and 604 by the middle of last month. Healey added that a Gulfstream III client, a Citation 650 owner and some Pilatus PC-12 operators are waiting in the wings.

“With Ellipse Direct, we can deliver DirecTV to virtually any business aircraft, from Gulfstreams, Challengers and Falcons to Citations, Hawkers and even single-engine turboprops such as the Pilatus and Caravan,” said Flight Display Systems president David Gray.

What Isn’t New Is Better

Since it acquired Airshow, Rockwell Collins has been remarkably successful at marketing its Airshow 21 total cabin electronics system. Rockwell has a full plate of minor improvements that add up to better cabin entertainment, all of it designed around a 3194 high-speed digital or an Ethernet backbone, with plug-and-play function as a major advantage.

Lightweight speakers and good multichannel amplifiers will soon reach the point that designers will be able to re-create a home-theater audio equivalent in the customer’s airplane cabin. Dave Frankenbach, director of cabin systems, pointed out the obstacles inherent in outfitting an airplane with such systems. “It’s something of a challenge, when you consider the difference between a room in your house where you can easily arrange the speakers and chairs and the outside noise is negligible and a cylindrical cabin where you are limited in where you can hide the speakers and by a fixed arrangement of the seating,” he said.
Wireless Handheld To Come Soon

Two years ago, Lufthansa Technik introduced a new sound system that converted virtually any cabin panel to a high-fidelity speaker by means of attached transducers. Now Honeywell is close to introducing a similar system. The company has shrunk the transducer to the size of a can of tuna and, in partnership with a company yet to be named, expects to introduce it at the NBAA Convention in November.

Aware of the desire for cleaner, crisper sound with better fidelity, Rockwell is also offering powered noise-canceling headsets that do not require batteries.

According to Bruce Thigpen, senior director of marketing for business and regional systems, Rockwell is looking closely at a wireless handheld audio/video control that is expected to reach the airline market initially in the Boeing 787, scheduled to enter service in 2008, but Frankenbach believes handheld audio/video wireless controls will appear in the business aircraft market earlier.

To avoid redundancy, Airshow 21 now offers a dual-deck DVD that eliminates the need for a CD player. At the same time, said Tim Rayl, senior director for Airshow systems, the company is aware that while DVD is the future, videotapes remain in use and so it continues to offer a VCR as an option.

At Midcoast Aviation, senior director of major modifications Rodger Renaud said the Cahokia, Ill. company has installed only a DVD player in some aircraft, giving the owners a CD alternative using the same machine. For another customer, he put in a double-DVD system, to give the customer an “alternative to the alternative.”

Moving Map Upgrades

Moving maps remain popular, but customers expect more than just an overview with the tiny image of an airplane moving across a simplified map at the pace of rush-hour traffic on the Long Island Expressway. This encouraged Lufthansa Technik, in partnership with TEAC Aerospace of Montebello, Calif., to introduce AirTrack last year.

Unlike competitors, AirTrack uses actual satellite terrain imagery that Lufthansa describes as “a 3-D, detailed topographical map.” The aircraft image superimposed over the terrain is of the user’s own business jet (starting with super-midsize models), complete with the company’s own paint scheme and logo. The aircraft image on the screen accurately mimics the movements of the actual airplane.

Rockwell Collins has been steadily improving its Airshow 4000 system with such additions as an interactive moving map, BBC news programming, and MyAirshow. net to give users greater individual control.

In January the company added seven new languages to its display and flight information system–Chinese, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese and Russian. Already available were Arabic, English, French, German and Spanish. “And we’re continuing to add more content and more ways to tailor it to how much or how little the customer wants,” said Thigpen. The interactive version of Airshow 4000 is standard equipment on Bombardier’s new Global 5000, supported by the Airshow 21 cabin management system.

Honeywell claims to be finding a ready market for its next-generation JetMap II, introduced at NBAA in Las Vegas last year. It allows the user access to continuously updated news, sports and financial content and, according to Olson, can be customized directly to the needs of the passenger.

“Passengers can view scrolling headlines simultaneously with flight maps and route information, or they can choose to read complete news stories, see a three-day weather forecast and more,” Olson explained.

Coming in the near future is a JetMap II upgrade–part of an E and C series–that will interface with “just about any cabin system,” offering users choices of touch-screen or remote control.

An Alternative to LCD Technology

Honeywell has taken one of the more innovative ideas–one that the industry still believes is at least five years away from becoming the standard in display screens– and integrated it into its new Ovation cabin system. It’s called OLED and it’s incorporated into the side-ledge controllers.

OLED is electronic shorthand for “organic light-emitting diode” technology and dozens of companies and research facilities, including Kodak (where it was invented in the early 1980s), Dow Chemical and Princeton University, are racing to bring it to the mass market.

In “geek-speak,” OLED is a display device that sandwiches carbon-based films between two charged electrodes, one a metallic cathode and one a transparent anode, usually glass but also flexible acrylic. The organic films consist of a hole-injection layer, an emissive layer and an electron-transport layer.

When voltage is applied to the OLED cell, the injected positive and negative charges recombine in the emissive layer and create electro-luminescent light. Unlike LCDs (liquid crystal displays), which require backlighting, OLED displays are emissive devices–they emit light rather than modulate transmitted or reflected light. Compared with state-of-the-art LCDs, OLEDs:

• are brighter and sharper from any angle.

• consume only about 25 percent of the power.

• weigh significantly less.

• can be shaped to fit curved surfaces.

• display video at a rate faster than the eye can see, allowing extremely fluid full-motion effects.

• have virtually no limit to the size of the viewing area.

• can be manufactured in continuous sheets about as thick as a business card.

It would be quite possible to cover an entire bulkhead with an ultra-thin OLED screen and program it for any pattern or scene desired, and at any moment shift it to use as a DVD monitor screen. In theory, an aircraft of the future might not have windows but instead have only OLED panels that show the view from outside the aircraft captured by an exterior camera.

While a typical camera-class LCD can reproduce 262,000 colors, Kodak’s Nuvue displays can reproduce more than 16 million colors.

When OLED was first discovered, its lifespan was measured in mere seconds. Newer technology has extended that to hours and industry observers are convinced that researchers are close to resolving the problem of a market-limiting lifespan. OLED is already beginning to replace small-screen LCD displays. Display technology analyst Paul Semenza of ISuppli believes that factories will be rolling out 289 million active-matrix OLED displays annually by 2010.

Meanwhile, cabin interior designers and their clients still face the question: LCD or gas plasma monitor?

In the past several years, buyers of large business jets such as the Airbus Corporate Jetliner or Boeing Business Jet have been partial to gas plasma, which works by sandwiching neon gas between two plates. The reason was simple; the largest LCD screen was about 32 inches, while plasma screens were available in sizes larger than 46 inches.

Plasma screens were larger, heavier, drew more power, generated far more heat, and reacted badly to altitude changes. But they were bigger. And when you’ve spent $50 million or so on a big airplane, you don’t want a small screen for viewing DVDs and satellite-direct television.

It’s all about bigger. For example, plasma video monitors dominate the 42-inch and above sizes, and LCD monitors dominate among the 30-inch and smaller sizes. But in the category of 30- to 37-inch monitors, the market is just about evenly divided. As LCD monitors grow in size, some completion center engineers expect gas plasma screens to go the way of the Dodo bird.

Manufacturers are constantly looking forward, and the future of cabin entertainment systems looks more and more as if it will include an Ethernet backbone with a single loop through which all the applications will operate. For the OEM and independent completion centers, said Olson, “It means 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 architecture and makes it digital.”

Cabin Management Systems

PGA Avionics of Chateauroux, France, has delivered its first Paradize II “advanced cabin management system,” and it is already in service on board an executive Airbus A330. According to the company, it links all of 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, crew and passenger touch-screen controls and individual reading lights and cabin “mood lighting.” The company is working on similar systems for an executive Airbus A340 and two ACJs.

When Intheairnet purchased all the outstanding shares of IEC In-Flight Systems stock last year, it became Intheairnet Ltd. The acquisition brought with it the UK-based cabin systems integrator’s entertainment and cabin control systems for executive widebody aircraft.

At the time, Rogerson noted that as a result, IEC can now “seamlessly add our integrated solutions to increase its customers’ technology choices, while opening up new markets for Intheairnet.”

Part of that new market will appear at the NBAA Convention in November in the form of a network and wireless technology, including fully digital Ethernet system, with the unlikely but amusing acronym, Nawtie. It will be, said Rogerson, “a fully functioning unit, and we expect it to be certified by that time.”

Long perceived as a backbone network for ground-bound computer systems, the Ethernet loop in business aircraft, said Olson, has in essence become the backbone for the entire cabin network, from high-speed Internet to entertainment. “It’s the entire cabin management system built around a single loop; it is more reliable, easier to install and maintain and gives the end user the same quality of a home or office system.

“We’re spending a lot of time on cabin-management systems, and 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,” he added.

“How do you give a guy 400 channels in 12 different countries, and still make it easy to navigate?” The truth is, he said, “it’s a constant race in which function is being chased by user simplicity, and Ethernet is the advantage.”

For that reason, Honeywell, Rockwell, Flight Display Systems, PGA, Intheairnet and others are working with “human factors” experts to improve the graphic user interface.