More than 30 products debut this year at AEA

 - May 1, 2009, 10:40 AM

Despite some stiff economic headwinds, avionics manufacturers attending last month’s Aircraft Electronics Association (AEA) Convention in Grapevine, Texas, showed their resilience by introducing more than 30 new products for the cockpit
and cabin.

Airborne communication gear featured prominently at the three-day show, held April 2 to 4 at the Gaylord Texan Resort, which drew around 1,500 from the avionics industry and more than 140 exhibitors. The mood on the show floor was surprisingly upbeat given the turmoil in the economy and data suggesting an across-the-board slowdown in general aviation flight activity. “It would be premature to announce the light at the end of the tunnel,” said AEA president Paula Derks, “but many of the manufacturers told me they are making good contacts and writing orders at the booths, which means their dealers–our members–are buying product.”

Aircell caused the biggest stir at a well attended new products introduction session on the show’s opening day by announcing that its Axxess-compatible in-flight broadband system for business jets will be available in July. The news came as a surprise to those who had been expecting initial availability for business aviation customers in September. Aircell, in fact, issued a press release at the show mentioning the September time frame, but officials decided at the last minute to move the date up after determining that installation of hardware provisioning kits on customer airplanes was going more smoothly than expected.

Aircell’s GoGo in-flight Internet service is now available on 160 airliners and appears to be popular with passengers eagerly pulling out their credit cards to sign up for the service. The installed base of airplanes is targeted to grow to more than 2,000 airliners by year-end, plus scores of business jets that will start receiving the hardware beginning in the summer.

Airline customers include American Airlines, Delta, United, Air Canada and Virgin America. Passengers pay $12.95 for Internet access on flights longer than three hours and $9.95 on shorter flights. On some flights, access using a handheld device such as a BlackBerry or iPhone is $7.95 per flight segment. Thousands have logged on to use the service in the air. Many of them are frequent travelers who use the GoGo service every time they fly, the company reports.

Aircell has developed two pricing plans for business aviation users, the first opening a fire hose of airborne data at speeds as high as 3.1 megabits per second for a flat monthly fee of $1,995. The second plan, for “light” Internet use and e-mail access using BlackBerrys or iPhones, costs $895 a month. The service is available anywhere over the continental U.S. and will soon be expanded to parts of Canada and Mexico, Aircell says.

Data is transmitted from ground towers to an onboard Aircell ATG 4000 receiver. A shipping backlog for this piece of the broadband puzzle means orders will be filled according to when they were received. Many business jets have already added Aircell Axxess gear and provisioning kits to install the broadband gear when it becomes available. Upgrading to high-speed data will require the installation of two blade-style antennas on the airplane’s belly, each measuring about seven inches long. Price for the system, including the Axxess unit with an internal two-channel Iridium satcom receiver, will run about $85,000 plus installation.

EMS Satcom used the AEA show to tout its new eNfusion AMT-700 high-gain antenna, a follow-on product to the popular AMT-50 antenna flying aboard more than 1,400 airplanes. Weighing in at less than five pounds, the AMT-700 is the lightest in EMS Satcom’s line of eNfusion antennas. EMS Satcom said the new antenna provides higher gain than the AMT-50 and features a patented quad-helix design that is intended to squeeze maximum efficiency from Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband service.

SwiftBroadband transmits data from three Inmarsat I-4 satellites in stationary orbit some 24,000 miles in space. Download speeds average around 280 kilobytes per second, although data acceleration techniques can boost the speed somewhat. Aircell showed a video at its AEA booth comparing download speeds of its broadband service and SwiftBroadband, which it supports through a deal with Danish satcom maker Thrane & Thrane. In the video, two identical laptops are used to load the same Web pages, but with dramatically different results. Pages loaded much more quickly on the laptop linked to the Internet through Aircell’s broadband service. The video matched the experiences generally reported by passengers who have used both services, although it’s worth noting that the SwiftBroadband setup in the video used no data compression gear.

Cabin Comforts

Also for the passenger compartment, Flight Display Systems and Emteq each provided details of new cabin management systems, while other manufacturers unleashed a slew of iPod/iPhone docking stations. Honeywell’s cupholder-size iPod dock made perhaps the most creative use of cabin space, while DPI Labs introduced an iPod cradle with automatic switching and RCA jacks that allow passengers to connect a portable DVD player or gaming console to a cabin monitor.

Emteq is said to be close to announcing its first OEM customer for the company’s new Skypro cabin management system, an integrated package designed to control nearly every conceivable convenience feature in the back of the airplane, including lights and window shades. The system will also link to e-mail, videoconferencing tools and a moving map, and it will offer iPod interfaces.

Flight Display Systems, meanwhile, said its cabin-management system for business jets will be available for retrofit installations starting next month. The company introduced a Blu-ray DVD player for business airplanes and took the wraps off the Jet JukeBox, an HD media storage device that can hold the equivalent of up to 100 DVD movies.

TrueNorth Avionics introduced a Simphone Duo system with built-in Wi-Fi capability. The company said the product lets passengers send and receive e-mail anywhere in the world using a BlackBerry or iPhone linked through the Iridium network. The company also showed off its Simphone Prelude system for light jets and Global Broadband system for larger airplanes. The company said the latter system can save an operator as much as $20,000 thanks to the inclusion of an integrated data router.

International Communications Group (ICG) said it has concluded an agreement to provide Rockwell Collins a version of the ICG NxtLink Iridium communications systems for air transport customers. Rockwell Collins is marketing the devices as the IRT-2110 (dual channel) and IRT 2120 (triple channel) Iridium systems.

The IRT-2110 incorporates a single Iridium transceiver and a short-burst data modem providing connections for flight deck voice and data systems. The IRT-2120 three-transceiver device combines dual transceivers providing two channels of global voice with a data modem dedicated to datalink services. ICG said the systems support future air navigation system (Fans) and controller-pilot datalink communications (CPDLC) as well as Acars messaging. Iridium is currently seeking approval to provide aviation safety services over its network.

New for the cockpit, L-3 Avionics Systems introduced the Trilogy ESI-1000 electronic standby instrument. Designed as a backup for flat-panel avionics systems, the product is touted as the first solid-state integrated standby system created specifically for light piston airplanes. The unit combines attitude, altitude, airspeed and optional heading data on a 3.7-inch-diagonal LCD display. The instrument
is designed to fit into a standard 3-ATI mounting cutout. An ambient light sensor automatically controls brightness. Trilogy units can be calibrated to 400 knots and 55,000 feet and can store aircraft configuration and options at the time
of installation. The unit will be available in July through OEMs as well as for retrofit
in glass and traditional cockpit configurations.

Sandel introduced the ST3400 helicopter terrain awareness and warning system (HTAWS) to the AEA audience, after the product’s formal introduction in February at the Heli-Expo show in Anaheim, Calif. Based on the class-A ST3400 TAWS developed for Part 25 business airplanes, the helicopter version of the system was modified for rotorcraft use with a higher-resolution obstacle database, a reduction of so-called nuisance alerts and night-vision-goggle compatibility.

Lightplane Retrofits Holding Up

Fresh off the certification announcement of the G1000 avionics system in the King Air 200, Garmin at AEA touted its GPS 695/696 handheld navigators as being the first for pilots not derived from a similar product initially sold into the consumer electronics market and showed off components of its G3X retrofit cockpit for kit-built and light sport airplanes. Most visitors to the Garmin booth, however, appeared more interested in G1000 news, including the recent announcement that Cirrus has selected a version of the cockpit for its single-engine Vision jet.

Upstart manufacturer Aspen Avionics, meanwhile, announced it has shipped 1,500 products in the last year. The company has scored sales successes with its Evolution line of glass panels, including the $7,995 EFD1000 and $4,995 EFD500 electronic flight displays. Later this year, the EWR50 XM weather data receiver will start shipping, after which the company plans to bring electronic approach charts and airport surface maps to its MFDs.

Other news from AEA included Avidyne’s introduction of the MLX780 satcom system, a combination that includes an Iridium-based weather data receiver and a cabin/cockpit telephone handset. The product’s introduction follows that of the MLX770, an Iridium weather receiver targeted initially to pilots flying in Europe. Avidyne said the $14,990 MLX780 will be available in the fall.