FDS wins its first STC for $100K Ellipse TV system

 - March 31, 2008, 12:04 PM

Flight Display Systems of Alpharetta, Ga., last month won a long-anticipated FAA STC for Ellipse TV, a product that takes a commercial-off-the-shelf satellite television antenna normally found atop SUVs, mobile homes and yachts and makes it available for installation on business jets.

Considering that competing satellite TV systems for aircraft can cost as much as $400,000 for the antenna and receiver system alone, the published price of $99,650 for Ellipse TV’s KVH Industries antenna and associated hardware is a comparative bargain. An additional $50,000 covers the cost of installing the antenna, receivers and cabin display monitors, which Flight Display Systems estimates will take around 80 to 100 man hours. Because of the way it’s mounted, the antenna can fit virtually any business airplane, the company claims.

“There are a lot of airplanes that TV hasn’t been available for because of the size of the antenna,” said Flight Display Systems president David Gray. “This opens up the door to all those people who have wanted TV but couldn’t get it.”

But the distinctive dorsal mounting solution for the Ellipse TV system’s 69-pound antenna may well discourage some potential buyers. Flight Display Systems and its partner on the project, The Maintenance Group of Atlanta, have modified the antenna to fit on an airplane fuselage by placing it in a 35-inch-diameter fiberglass-honeycomb radome that sits on four aluminum leg attachments. The configuration is not unlike those used by military AWACS aircraft. It might look strange, but designers say it works well and the performance penalty is negligible thanks to the radome’s extremely low drag coefficient. In fact, the flight manual supplement included with the STC shows no aircraft performance or handling changes, Gray said.

The radome itself sits about nine inches above the fuselage and, due to its shape, actually generates some lift. The company enlisted researchers at Georgia Tech to perform airflow analysis early on in the project, Gray said, and they confirmed that drag would be low. The installation is also extremely strong. Damage-tolerance testing of the antenna assembly was performed to Part 25 standards and, based on that analysis, the first threshold inspection doesn’t need to be accomplished until reaching 2.7 million cycles, said Dan Furlong, president of The Maintenance Group. Visual inspections of the antenna and radome are performed during normal scheduled maintenance.

Certification of the two-tuner Ellipse TV system  was delayed several times as the FAA asked for additional testing showing the antenna design indeed meets standards for airworthiness and safety. “We had an assumption going in that because AWACS aircraft have been flying for 50 years this should be a slam dunk,” Gray said, “but a concept like this has never flown on a type-certified airplane, so we had to start from scratch.” The STC makes the radome and leg attachments a structural part of the airplane, he said.

Gray founded Flight Display Systems in 1999 to develop a line of low-cost cabin
in-flight entertainment products. The company has introduced dozens of products since then, including LCD video monitors ranging in size from seven to 42 inches diagonal, audio systems and moving maps. Ellipse TV is the company’s most ambitious project to date, and Gray said he hopes the low acquisition price for the hardware will entice business aircraft operators.

IFE Options
Since the product was announced in September 2004, Rockwell Collins has introduced a lower priced satellite TV system of its own, called Tailwind 300, that sells for around $250,000 plus installation. Where Ellipse TV uses a fuselage-mounted antenna, the Tailwind 300 antenna sits in a radome on top of the tail. That limits the number of airplanes it can be installed on. Gray said his system also takes far less time and hassle to install than those that use tail-mounted antennas.

Because it uses a 12-inch dish antenna, the Tailwind 300 system can fit super-
midsize airplanes down to the size of a Gulfstream G200. Ellipse TV, meanwhile, isn’t limited to a particular size of airplane and could even be installed atop a Pilatus PC-12 if buyers wanted it, Gray claimed.

The initial STC includes a pending amendment that will bring the system next
to the Challenger 601 through 604. Multiple STC approvals are in the works for other aircraft, including various Gulfstreams, Falcons, Hawkers and Citations. Gray said the company expects receipt of parts manufacturing approval this month. The Maintenance Group will make the installation STCs available for a fee to shops throughout the U.S., and Gray said Flight Display Systems is holding discussions with about 20 customers who are interested in buying the system.

Currently, the system can receive two simultaneous channels of DirecTV in the continental Development costs for Ellipse TV, he said, were about $2 million.

As a TV antenna, the mechanically steered KVH phased array was a good choice, Gray said. “The antenna has the ability to change heading up to 40 degrees per second and can acquire a satellite signal without the need for GPS or aircraft navigation systems,” he said, adding that it can maintain signal lock until about 25 to 27 degrees of bank. “Signal reacquisition occurs very quickly, so while you may lose the picture while maneuvering for landing, it comes right back.”

As for the unconventional appearance of the antenna, Gray admitted that some love it while others loathe it. “There’s the guy who says, ‘There’s no way you’re going to put that on top of my beautiful airplane,’ and then there’s the guy who says, ‘Well, that’s cool,’ and thinks if he pulls up on the ramp everybody’s going to notice it.”