Cabin Entertainment

Aviation International News » February 2008
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February 7, 2008, 11:06 AM

Completion and refurbishment centers are racing to bring the latest technology into cabin entertainment with crisper, sharper pictures and better sound, user-friendly controls and improved reliability. On the cabin communications side, high-speed-data connections are finally poised to enter business aviation’s mainstream this year. Additional choices for getting connected online after takeoff will soon give passengers unprecedented access to the Internet and e-mail from the comfort of their airborne seats.

Onboard Entertainment Systems

In the world of cabin entertainment, the goal is to keep up with the latest, even though the technology seems always to be moving one step ahead.

That appears to be a perennial complaint by the completion and refurbishment industry, and the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month made it clear that the industry cannot expect any breathing space to catch up: exhibitors displayed more than a few new items that business jet buyers are going to want.

LG Electronics was showing a 52-inch, 1080p wireless high-definition television that not only simplifies installation but also promises a considerable reduction in weight and maintenance. And thin is in. Panasonic’s newest technology included a 24.7-mm-thick flat-panel gas plasma television with double luminance efficiency. More remarkable was Sony’s 11-inch, organic light-emitting diode (OLED) television, thinner than a poker chip, with a touted life-span of 10 years, and resolution “something like 100 times sharper than existing high-definition technology.”

“We have aircraft owners who are also investors in the latest technology, and that’s what they want in their airplanes,” said Blake Hogge, senior director of avionics and modifications sales at Midcoast Aviation. “The problem is that most of that new technology has been tested only in a home environment and no one has any idea how it will react to the rapid changes in heat and cabin pressure in an aircraft.”

And in the world of cabin refurbishment, there is also the challenge of introducing new technology to old vessels. “The old stuff might be only five years old, but in terms of technology, it’s light years behind, and often not compatible with new equipment. Then it’s a matter of tossing out the entire entertainment system and starting from zero.”

To compound matters, many completion centers, independent and aircraft manufacturers alike, are being asked to spec interiors for aircraft to be delivered as far into the future as 2012. “We have clients looking at the latest and greatest today and asking us to guarantee that it will still be the latest and greatest five years from now when the airplane rolls in for completion,” said Hogge.

“Latest and greatest,” said one completion executive with some skepticism. “We don’t even know if it will be available in five years, and if it is, whether the manufacturer will still be supporting it,” pointing out that an increasing number of older cabin management systems are no longer supported by the original vendor. And there’s the fact that much of the new technology–high-definition monitors, DVD players and iPods–are not compatible with the old cabin management system. Bottom line? Tear the whole thing out and start over, and that isn’t cheap.

“If it’s an integrated cabin management system, you can’t just add another piece of equipment here and there,” said Jeff Zacharius, CEO of Savannah Air Center. “You simply can’t do the same things you did just five years ago without tremendous cost, especially if you’re integrating equipment from different manufacturers.”

New Tech Represents Dreams Come True
While the products on the floor at the Consumer Electronics Show have yet to work their way into the business jet cabin, there is nevertheless a wealth of new gadgets and gizmos that are no longer electronic novelties. Some are relatively minor improvements. Others are new adaptations of existing technology. Still others are examples of new technology making a first appearance in a business jet cabin.

Alto Aviation of Leominster, Mass., is a small company that has begun making some big noise, literally. Its specialty is sound, with roots in Bose technology. Its latest product is a customized surround-sound system. Alto has adapted the surround-sound concept developed for the home or theater to an aircraft cabin or cabin zone, arranging the speakers so the passenger in each seat can experience the same surround-sound quality. According to company president Don Hamilton, five of the new systems are already on order.

Just delivered is a complete L-1011 interior refurbishment by King Aerospace with Alto’s sound system in each of the five cabin zones. Even more recent was the sound system for the Abercrombie & Fitch Gulfstream V. The owner, said Hamilton, wanted a system that would replicate the sound of the dance music played in the company’s clothing stores, which required six sub-woofers under the seats. “They wanted the dance club feel and that’s what they got,” said Hamilton.

Audio International promotes its fully digital (with uncompressed video output) cabin management system as “absolutely adaptable.” Because the system is serial digital, the only equipment the customer would need to add from other manufacturers is a de-serializer. It includes iPod interface and can accommodate other carry-on entertainment devices.

According to Mike Hammers, director of sales and marketing, the DeCrane Little Rock, Ark.-based company is also offering 17-, 23- and 32-inch HD-capable LCD monitors, as well as a CD player that allows the user to erase tunes or save them to a library.

Looking forward, Flight Display Systems of Alpharetta, Ga., is at work on a line of high-definition monitors. (For details about the various high-definition resolutions, see sidebar on page 29.) Just back from Las Vegas, company president David Gray noted that the reaction at the electronics show is that Blu-ray is the emerging winner in the high-definition DVD player sweepstakes. “We’re very close to our first HD product with an encrypted HD media interface to allow for 1080p resolution.
“Customers already have high-definition DVDs and monitors in their homes, and they’re not going to settle for anything less in their airplanes.”

In December Flight Display introduced a detachable 15-inch LCD monitor that can be affixed to a bulkhead swivel mount that allows for 100-degree articulation.

Cabin Management

Among the projects at Honeywell is a graphical passenger control unit. According to technical sales manager of cabin products Jason Yates, the old text-based control unit wasn’t as user friendly, particularly for a growing non-English-speaking market and users whose eyesight is, shall we say, challenged.

And the maintenance folk will like the new unit. The database will be reassigned automatically for switch panels moved from one location to another, anywhere in the cabin. And there are also no left- or right-hand panels, as they will be reoriented automatically. “It reduces inventory and reduces the maintenance workload,” said Yates.

Also in the works at Honeywell is a move toward networking the entire cabin so that audio, video, cabin management and local area network are integrated into a single gigabyte network that will support future high-definition video, “which is also on our roadmap for the future.” It will initially be available on the Ovation E series, which features an Ethernet fully digital cabin management system.

Last month, Honeywell introduced full power distribution over the Ovation E series Ethernet. “We can distribute power to any component connected to the network,” said Yates. “It reduces the amount of wiring, the weight and the complexity of the entire package.”

Yates said Honeywell also recently purchased several iPhone and iTouch products to test the feasibility of video interface with a 50-inch LCD monitor.

While most cabin management and entertainment system manufacturers aim primarily at the green aircraft cabin finishing market, InTheAirNet of Irvine, Calif., is focused on the after-market refurbishment business. Its most recent product is CabFlex, a cabin management/entertainment package designed as a full system. But while it has all the expected hardware and software, said director of marketing and sales Martin Hamilton, “It’s scalable and flexible and the completion center can subtract what it doesn’t need.” It comes standard with a single auxiliary port for portable media such as an iPod or PlayStation 3, and additional auxiliary ports are optional.

Finally, the relatively new JetMap II moving-map display will be redesigned to accommodate additional communication pipes to allow interface with external satcom and eliminate the need for one of the fuselage-mounted external antennas.

Most of the newer cabin management systems are “incredibly integrated,” making it difficult to add a third-party element, according to completion center engineers. The
exception, said an industry observer, is Lufthansa Technik’s Nice (network integrated cabin equipment) system, which he described as “light years ahead in terms of flexibility and adaptability and built around a true Ethernet backbone.

“What’s more,” he added, “the simplicity of the system makes it particularly user-friendly.” To further improve the system, the Hamburg, Germany-based company is developing a remote, proactive maintenance program that will allow the network to monitor itself, diagnose problems and automatically notify Lufthansa Technik.

Also in the works is a major upgrade to the AirTrac moving map that will include high-definition video and iPod video distribution.

Rockwell Collins introduced its Venue high-definition cabin management system last September, touting it as “designed much like a typical home theater.” It includes a real-time and uncompressed high-definition distribution system that allows passengers to view 730p or 1080p quality video from sources such as Blue-ray DVDs and Xbox game consoles. There are also OLED-equipped switch panels with programmable soft buttons and an intuitive, icon-based graphical user interface.

Venue allows for iPod and iPhone integration, something Randy Keeker, president of independent completion center Indianapolis Jet Center, says “everybody wants.” Keeker noted that multiple iPod audio docking stations have already become the norm and are “almost as common at every seat now as reading lights. Audio is the norm, and video is next,” he added.

Rockwell Collins’ Venue features a dual-video box with one channel dedicated to the 3-D moving map display and the other to entertainment center video output. And while compatible with the new Blu-ray high-definition DVD, it is also backward compatible with standard-definition DVD players. The entertainment system has a camera hookup to allow the transfer of photos to the media-center hard drive.

Also available is personal audio-video on demand, and passengers can bring along an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 and compete with other passengers.

Rockwell is also developing new monitors, among them a 10.6-inch, high-definition, seat- or bulkhead-mounted display. And there are plans for larger high-definition monitors suitable for bigger aircraft.

Last September, Rosen Aviation announced a partnership with XM satellite weather specialist Heads Up Technologies that would bring XM WX Satellite Weather capability to Rosen’s new RosenView LXM moving map and passenger briefing system. The Eugene, Ore.-based video display provider began shipping the LXM systems and has unveiled the next generation “RosenView VX combo unit.”

“It’s almost a complete system in a single box,” said marketing manager Phil Cowles. With all switching contained within a single box, it supports the moving map as well as DVD and iPod auxiliary input. The addition of iPod not only adds another source of video to the system, but it also allows input from multiple DVD players. Separate audio and video input permits the passenger to listen to music while the moving map is displayed.

“It’s ideal for the very light jet and light jet markets,” said Cowles. Shipments of the VX combo units are already under way, and Piaggio has selected the system for its Avanti II.

Rosen is also working on a new, seven-inch, high-definition, wide-screen monitor with 800- by 480-pixel resolution. Rosen expects to have it available for shipment next month.

The entire concept of cabin electronics has changed, according to Rockwell Collins cabin systems marketing director Andrew Moore. “It’s a melding of Internet and connectivity, and passive entertainment is rapidly giving way to interactive systems,” he said.

“It’s a new generation,” he continued, describing today’s private jet passengers. “People are carrying their content with them, and they want to hook in just like they would at home.”

As for the latest technology, Moore concedes that there is often some serious lag time between its introduction in the commercial market and its appearance in the private jet cabin. “The technology is there and the demand is there,” he said, “but the industry has to figure out how to fill that demand and still make a profit.”

High-speed data choices growing on pace with passenger demand

After a rocky start, the market for airborne data connectivity finally appears ready to take on the high-flying masses. AirCell’s air-to-ground broadband service is being prepped for live trials with American Airlines and Virgin America ahead of its full rollout to business jet operators this summer. Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband service has gone live in two of three oceanic regions, and a third satellite covering the Pacific Ocean region could blast off as early as this spring. Rockwell Collins, meanwhile, has taken over responsibility for hardware development of Arinc’s SkyLink Ku-band satellite broadband data service, allowing the Cedar Rapids, Iowa avionics maker to re-launch its eXchange data service for business jets.

The failure of Boeing Connexion satellite data service and congestion problems related to Inmarsat’s Swift64 data offering put a damper on early prospects for airborne Internet surfing, but the concept has gained new life thanks to the emergence of services from AirCell and others and strong demand by passengers. Wi-Fi-enabled smart phones and BlackBerrys just now hitting the consumer market will give fliers the same access to e-mail after takeoff that they enjoy on the ground. Once the Web-enabled cabin becomes commonplace, look for voice-over-IP technology and perhaps even videoconferencing to emerge on the scene.

AirCell Broadband
AirCell has deployed around 90 ground towers to support a nationwide network that will supply steady streams of data to airplanes flying above 10,000 feet. The towers are more or less evenly spaced throughout the country to provide overlapping coverage with few gaps. As a result, many of the ground stations are located in remote areas atop hills or mountains. In some cases the equipment had to be transported to their destinations on converted army tanks. With the heavy lifting out of the way, AirCell engineers are ready to begin real-world trials of the service.

“We’re well down the path on the network side,” said Bill Peltola, AirCell senior vice president for aviation sales and marketing. “Virtually all the stations are built and ready to go. We’re doing a lot of the testing now.” Each tower receives and transmits data in a radius covering roughly 200 miles, with automatic handoffs occurring between towers as the airplane flies along its route. Based on an analysis of aircraft traffic patterns, AirCell engineers have developed a network architecture that calls for the deployment of 92 towers initially and perhaps more later to fill in coverage gaps or address capacity issues.

A relatively small number of airliners are being equipped with AirCell Broadband hardware as the vast majority of carriers wait on the sidelines before committing to the technology. As airline executives know all too well, the track record of services for which passengers are expected to pay extra fees has not been good. Seat-back phones failed miserably, pay-per-view movies didn’t catch on as hoped and onboard gambling (perhaps the most intriguing idea for separating airline passengers from their money) never even made it past the conceptual stage.

AirCell has said the price for Web surfing will be about $10 to $13 per flight for airline passengers and “attractive” for business jet operators. The onboard hardware needed to get connected will include a two-box transceiver system consisting of the main AirCell Broadband radio unit and an Axxess unit containing two channels of Iridium voice/data satcom. A Wi-Fi access point mounts inside the Axxess box, providing 802.11g wireless access throughout the cabin. The broadband portion of the system includes dual six-inch blade antennas that mount to the aircraft belly. Aircell is investigating a single-antenna solution for business jets.

Hardware pricing information won’t be released until late April at the Aircraft Electronics Association Convention in Washington, D.C., but a total system cost of around $100,000 is estimated based on the fact that the AirCell Axxess unit alone costs $40,000. Peltola promised that the system will be “substantially less expensive–as well as smaller, lighter and easier to install–than any broadband system that’s been out there previously.” AirCell hasn’t divulged how much its airline customers pay for the hardware, which initially is being installed aboard 15 American Airlines Boeing 757s and Virgin America’s fleet of 15 Airbus A319s and A320s. Airline trials of the service are scheduled to begin in the next few months.

As for the data rates that will be attainable using the AirCell Broadband service, the company is remaining tight lipped on that topic as well. Reluctant to commit to minimum or maximum data rates, AirCell says only that its broadband service will supply a “DSL-like” experience for users. The dilemma facing AirCell is a situation where its broadband service proves so popular out of the gate that traffic congestion begins to slow down the network at peak times on busy routes. Such overloading has plagued users of Inmarsat’s Swift64 data service, who say they have had difficulty logging onto the Internet at busy times of the day.

“That’s something we took seriously when we laid out the architecture for the service from the beginning,” Peltola said. “The system is designed to support both the airline and the business aviation markets simultaneously. It is scalable in the future on the ground, and that’s the key factor. If we start to anticipate that we’re going to run out of capacity or see reduced performance, we can go in and add sectors to the cells on the ground. If that’s not enough, we can add more cells. And because the network is ground-based and leveraged off ground-cellular technology, it’s quite straightforward and cost-effective for us to add capacity.”

Inmarsat SwiftBroadband
Adding capacity to a satellite orbiting 24,000 miles in space is another matter. That’s why Inmarsat is launching a new generation of satellites, called Inmarsat-4, to support its SwiftBroadband service delivering 432 kbps of data per channel to aircraft flying anywhere in the world except over the poles. That’s far faster than the 64-kbps speed of the current Swift64 service, but it’s still quite a bit slower than AirCell’s service or the Ku-band SkyLink satellite offering from Arinc and Rockwell Collins. To avoid the congestion problems that have plagued many Swift64 customers, Inmarsat is limiting SwiftBroadband use to two channels per aircraft, meaning a combined maximum data speed of 864 kbps. Some Swift64 customers have reportedly bonded as many as eight channels in a single airplane, and many users often fly with all their channels turned on simultaneously.

SwiftBroadband made its commercial debut in October. The service currently is available over about two-thirds of the planet as Inmarsat awaits a slot to launch its third and final I4 satellite to complete its broadband global area network constellation. Inmarsat was hoping to launch that satellite in April, but the explosion of a Russian Proton rocket after the failed launch of a Japanese communications satellite last July has thrown the schedule into doubt, according to Lars Ringertz, head of aeronautical marketing for Inmarsat. He said Inmarsat still hopes to launch the satellite in the second quarter.

EMS Satcom in Ottawa was the first SwiftBroadband hardware maker to obtain network approval, securing the seal of approval from Inmarsat after trials of its eNfusion HSD-400 high-speed data terminal. Originally introduced as a Swift64 terminal in June 2005, the HSD-400 is software upgradeable to support SwiftBroadband services. The terminal underwent hundreds of hours of ground and in-flight analysis and evaluation to obtain approval for SwiftBroadband operation. Tests included assessing the terminal’s functionality and the performance of the SwiftBroadband network, with much of the analysis performed aboard two BBJs operated by a Fortune 100 company.

The qualification trials evaluated a variety of applications, including virtual private networking, e-mail access, large file transfers, streaming video and instant messaging, said John Broughton, vice president of product development for EMS Satcom. The HSD-400 terminal was tested with a CNX Cabin Gateway Series networking device using wireless and Ethernet connections. The test showed average throughputs of 300 kbps, with performance reaching a peak speed of 475 kbps per channel, he noted.

During a lab demonstration at EMS Satcom’s headquarters near Ottawa, SwiftBroadband download speeds averaged between 254 kbps and 332 kbps, while an upload test showed an average speed of 77 kbps. For users accustomed to accessing the Internet over a DSL connection or a T1 line, SwiftBroadband won’t offer the same experience. Pages take several seconds to start loading and load more slowly than with high-speed services on the ground. But for a satellite service that will soon be available to users just about anywhere in the world, the speeds are adequate for most types of Web surfing and e-mail traffic.

Besides EMS Satcom, SwiftBroadband-compatible hardware is produced by Thrane & Thrane, Thales, Chelton Satcom and CMC Electronics. EMS also produces data terminals and other gear for Honeywell and Rockwell Collins. Service pricing depends on the provider, although none has yet said publicly what it will charge for SwiftBroadband access. Voice calls will be priced at less than $1.50 a minute, Ringertz said, and background IP will be charged at a rate that will end up being less per megabit than Swift64. Pricing for guaranteed streaming rates of 32, 64, and 128 kbps over SwiftBroadband will be similar to that of Swift64.

Meanwhile, the outlook for the fledgling eXchange satellite broadband service from Rockwell Collins appeared bleak after Boeing decided to pull the plug on its Ku-band Connexion service in late 2006. Launched amid great fanfare just two years earlier, Connexion met its untimely demise after airline customers failed to sign up for the service at the rate Boeing anticipated. But a deal announced last year between Arinc and Rockwell Collins has revived eXchange by allowing Collins to take over production of associated SkyLink broadband hardware.

Last June Collins announced it would team with Arinc to provide the Ku-band satellite service for eXchange as a replacement for Connexion. At the time, Arinc’s SkyLink was a competing product, offering uplink rates as high as 3.5 mbps exclusively to operators of Gulfstream business jets. The Collins eXchange service, meanwhile, was limited initially to Bombardier Global-series jets. As part of the deal between the companies, Arinc will continue to operate the SkyLink data network.

The system uses a tail-mounted dish antenna and is ideally suited for larger Gulfstream, Bombardier and Dassault business jets, Collins said. The company plans to offer an upgrade path for Global Express operators who installed original eXchange hardware. It will also take over support for more than 60 SkyLink units installed aboard Gulfstream business jets as part of the Broad Band Multi Link suite.

BlackBerrys in the Cabin
More so than the ability to surf the Web, passengers say their number-one data need is for access to e-mail after takeoff. And for more executives, that means tapping and scrolling on their BlackBerrys and iPhones. Thanks to Wi-Fi compatibility in these devices, high fliers can stay in touch even after taking off if the airplane they’re flying aboard has the right communications gear.

Honeywell recently installed a Wi-Fi communications gateway on its Gulfstream G550 that is letting passengers use their Blackberrys to send and receive e-mail in flight. The exercise is serving as a testing ground for new Wi-Fi services through Honeywell’s OneLink communications service. Due for commercial availability in the third quarter, the service uses the mobile packet datalink of Inmarsat Swift64 and SwiftBroadband terminals to route e-mail traffic. Rockwell Collins also is preparing for an expected surge in passenger demand by readying its eXchange service for data connectivity using certain Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones, such as the BlackBerry 8320 and 8820. Both companies say BlackBerry use is near the top of customers’ lists for desired communications services.

Anticipating an uptick in demand for such access, ABC Completions in Montreal has even trademarked the name “AirBerry.” The company has begun offering satcom hardware options that it says will allow passengers’ BlackBerrys to synch with onboard satcom equipment with minimal upgrades. “We’ve come up with a solution that is completely seamless for the end user, whether it be the executive in the back or the pilots up front,” said ABC Completions president Gary Nash. “Once the satcom system has been installed, passengers simply switch their BlackBerry on and the device automatically connects.”

The cost per e-mail, said Nash, is between 10 cents and 50 cents, depending on message size. ABC Completions worked with EMS Satcom to design an AirBerry hardware package that connects through the Inmarsat satcom datalink. System components include a high-speed-data satcom terminal, wireless router and fuselage- or tail-mounted antenna. The total price to upgrade a business jet that already has a voice-only satcom system on board is about $200,000, Nash said, with downtime averaging four days.

Midcoast Aviation, meanwhile, reports having installed equipment to allow in-flight BlackBerry use in a Gulfstream IV and two Bombardier Global Expresses. According to Midcoast engineers, the system requires minimal user interaction and “is as simple as plugging in the BlackBerry device to the supplied aircraft cabin connection.” An on-board pen-tablet computer serves as the interface between the BlackBerry and the aircraft’s high-speed-data satcom system. Once connected, the user can send and receive e-mail and synchronize contacts, calendars and tasks.

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