With the new Xplore system Arinc Direct is jumping into the market for small portable Iridium-powered onboard communications devices that use Apple’s iPad as the control/display unit for cockpit and cabin data services.
Xplore is a small box, two inches thick and no larger than an iPad, that users will carry onto the aircraft, thus no installation of an avionics unit is required. Xplore needs to be attached to power and to an external dual Iridium/GPS antenna to enable communication with Iridium satellites.
The system is designed to provide, to both the flight deck and the cabin, Acars-type communications for the pilots and instant messaging/texting, email and one-way air-to-ground voice calling for passengers.
Inside Xplore are two boards, one stuffed with the telephony systems, which handle communications management, and the other featuring an Intel Atom processor, a file server and memory. The telephony board contains two separate Iridium “modems,” one to serve pilots and one for passengers. “The other board is a blank palette on which to develop additional applications,” said Arinc Direct senior director Bob Richard.
On the cockpit side, Xplore allows the iPad to act as a control/display unit (CDU) for Arinc Direct’s Acars services. Instead of making Acars requests via a flight management system CDU then viewing the results on the FMS’s limited screen, pilots see the results on the iPad’s large-screen colorful graphical interface. “Everything you can do with regular Acars you can do with this,” Richard explained, with the exception of uploading a flight plan to the FMS. However, the iPad running Arinc Direct’s app can be used for extensive flight planning on Arinc’s system. The iPad Xplore system can even log “out, off, on, in” (OOOI) events, but not triggered by a sensor on the aircraft such as a weight-on-wheels switch. Using Xplore, OOOI reports, such as the “off” report, happen when the GPS determines that the aircraft has accelerated to more than 60 knots, and the “on” report is triggered when slowing below that speed.
All of the other Acars functionality that Arinc offers is available via Xplore on the iPad, including messaging, graphical and textual weather, Notams, flight planning and changes to flight plans, pre-departure clearances, oceanic clearances and so on. Using the iPad for this is much easier than the typical FMS interface, according to Richard. On the FMS, he added, “things aren’t necessarily laid out as logically as they could be. The information is not well formatted, and it’s a lot more intuitive on the iPad.”
Arinc Direct has also improved its iPad app to work better when using Xplore. Before, the app was leg-centric, meaning that it was easy to gather data associated with a particular leg of a flight plan, such as weather, Notams and so on. However, with the new version of the app, pilots can view either leg-centric data or range out anywhere in the world for Metars, Tafs, Notams and more, making it easier to answer a question about a potential diversion or destination change. This also enables pilots to download colorful graphical weather products onto the iPad from anywhere, which can then be overlaid on flight plans. Turning graphical weather functions on for an FMS can cost tens of thousands of dollars, according to Richard. “They may not want to turn it on and pay, and simply use this instead and get better weather overlays than they could over the traditional Acars system.” Arinc Direct also offers a full lightning database, something that isn’t available on an FMS weather display, he said.
While Xplore can be used to make voice calls from the ground to the air, Richard said, “95 percent of communications with aircraft are air-initiated.” To keep the product simple, Xplore is focused on air-to-ground communications. For voice, this means voice over IP (VOIP) phone calls. When passengers board an Xplore-equipped aircraft, they can use their smartphones to connect to Xplore (via VOIP), which then directs the call to the ground on an Iridium voice channel. Passengers can also use Xplore to send text messages, and they are assigned a phone number in the Xplore app, which they will use anytime they tap into Xplore. When a passenger sends a text message, it goes to Arinc’s server in Annapolis, Md., then it is delivered to the recipient, who sees that it came from the passenger’s “aircraft” number. If someone on the ground sends a text message to the passenger, and that customer happens not to be flying, Arinc Direct will deliver the message to the customer’s mobile phone. Arinc Direct will help Xplore customers set up master accounts containing all their instant messaging account information, and this will enable Arinc to determine whether that customer is flying or on the ground. That helps the company figure out where to direct incoming messages.
Because the Iridium channels have limited bandwidth, Arinc Direct’s Xplore email is limited to simple text-based emailing. One supported protocol is BlackBerry email, from which Arinc can more easily strip out data-rich graphical data so only the text is sent. The other method is to give the customer a special email address (firstname.lastname@example.org). Any email sent from the ground will be stripped of graphical extras, turned into a text message and sent to the aircraft.
In the cabin, the first Xplore app will be a moving-map display. Many more applications will be possible, and these could be developed by Arinc Direct or other app-makers and might include preflight briefings, Mecca pointers, points-of-interest displays on moving maps, day/night maps, news and weather. “It could be a whole bunch of stuff,” Richard said.
Arinc Direct is not planning to develop apps for the Android market because writing software for Android is more complicated and costly, due to the inconsistencies in the screen sizes, resolution and operating system. “Aviation has pretty much gone with the iPad. The only [negative] thing about the iPad,” he said, is that “people hate the Apple model because it’s so locked down. But from a development perspective, it allows for consistency. I know how to be compatible with an iPad. To develop apps in another platform, it’s 100-percent duplication. You can’t reuse anything you did for the Apple. Is it easier to spend money and accommodate two paths and give customers a choice or focus on making one of them extremely good? We’ve chosen the latter path. If customers want mobile Arinc Direct, they will have to get an iPad.”
Xplore will start shipping at this month’s EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, where Arinc Direct is exhibiting for the first time. Suggested retail price for the Xplore box is $25,000, and installation of an Iridium/GPS antenna will add about $5,000 because that has to be done under a supplemental type certificate. For aircraft with existing Iridium systems, Xplore could plug into those, thus sparing the operator from paying for another Iridium account and a new antenna. Arinc Direct hasn’t published official Xplore usage prices yet, but Richards expects that voice calls will cost approximately $1.50 per minute. Arinc Direct is considering a monthly package price at about $750, which would include Acars services such as flight planning, text messaging, access to flight coordinators, weather and so on.
“Xplore fills a niche and is getting Acars into smaller [aircraft] and eliminating that barrier to entry,” Richard concluded.