Inflight cameras provide bird's-eye view for passengers

 - February 25, 2011, 5:15 AM

"Godπs-eye" or "bird's-eye" view cameras are showing up on more and more private jets these days, sitting on the cockpit glareshield, mounted atop the vertical stabilizer and tucked into the aircraft belly, providing video to passengers through the entertainment system. In some cases they are providing information to the pilots as well. Theyπre becoming as common as helmet cams on race car drivers, and it seems as if every completion and refurbishment center is installing them on every airplane type from single-engine turboprops to widebody bizliners.

"It's becoming more and more popular, especially on larger, high-end aircraft," said Blake Hogge, senior manager of avionics sales at Jet Aviation's facilities in East Cahokia, Ill. "We install them regularly, from quad-cams in the airplaneπs belly to cockpit glareshield-mounted cameras to give passengers a pilotπs-eye view." Hogge estimates the center has installed these cameras on as many as 50 business aircraft as part of green completion and refurbishment projects. The most popular spot to place these cameras seems to be on the cockpit glareshield, where the camera sees what the pilot sees while taxiing and on takeoff and approach. Some versions even have several angles to allow a better view during takeoff or landing.

A tail-mounted camera is a close second in popularity polls. Located in a housing atop the vertical stabilizer, it provides a wide-angle view looking forward and typically shows most of the aircraft from above. Some of them come with an optical zoom, though beyond a 10X zoom the image is a little shaky.

A belly-mounted camera provides a view looking vertically down, or down at an angle that includes the horizon. There is even a zoom feature for a closer look at the ground. A quad-cam belly installation offers a choice of four views covering 360 degrees. It is not unusual for a client to opt for all three cameras–glareshield, tail and quad-mount belly–on a single aircraft.

Aerial View Systems created one of the first bird's-eye view cameras when company founder Joe Brunner mounted one on an aircraft in 1985. Gulfstream Aerospace was the first business jet OEM to install a glareshield-mounted camera, part of an Aerial View package.

At the NBAA Convention last October, Aerial View Systems was demonstrating its new AVS-820 high-definition (HD) 820-line camera mounted in a Challenger tail cap. It features a 10X optical zoom and automatic shift to black-and-white during low-light conditions. Like most of Aerial View's exterior cameras, it comes with a conformal housing, simplifying installation. The AVS-470 NTSC standard-definition tail camera sells for $13,700 with all equipment, cables and racks. The HD version is priced at $16,500. For airplanes that do not yet have HD monitors, the digital cameras can still be installed and set to deliver standard-definition (NTSC) output, then reconfigured to HD at a cost of $2,000 when new monitors are installed.

The company's newest camera is the AVS-800 high-definition, glareshield unit with 30X optical zoom and 5X digital and auto black-and-white for low light levels. Customers who opt for the standard-definition version and later decide to upgrade to HD can have the camera reconfigured at a cost of about $2,000. The standard-definition camera is priced at $12,500 and the new HD at $13,500. As with the tail-mount camera, the NTSC glareshield-version can be installed and upgraded to HD later at a cost of $2,000.

Thanks to compact electronics, both the AVS-800 and AVS-820 are much more compact than the NTSC version, with no external break-out box and therefore no racks or trays and minimal cable. Total weight of each system is less than half that of the standard-resolution camera system.

According to Brunner, the Newport Beach, Calif.-based firm has contracted with a major OEM to provide an HD birdπs-eye camera package. It will be mounted in a pressurized, nitrogen-filled enclosure with a two-millimeter thick, heated sapphire lens. The lens also has an anti-reflective coating, as well as a heated indium tin oxide coating, which serves to conduct electrostatic charges away from the lens.

Securaplane Video Cam Is Astronomical Success

Securaplane claims to have more than 2,000 camera units installed and flying, including those on airliners. The Tucson, Ariz.-based firm is perhaps best known for the use of exterior video cameras in support of its surveillance and security systems. Securaplane also provides cameras with a view of the main and nose landing gear to allow pilots to determine clearances more accurately while taxiing. However, the company is also a major source of video camera installations for passenger entertainment, and some of its products serve both purposes.

The company developed its first camera system in 1996 as an enhancement to its aircraft electronic security system and it was installed to provide a view of the nose landing gear. By 1999 Securaplane had introduced a low-profile, aerodynamic external camera for in-flight entertainment, safety and security applications. In 2002 the company entered the commercial airborne video camera market with a line of camera systems originally made by Ball Aerospace.

One of Securaplane's most recent successes is a package of eight CMZ-01 video cameras installed in the new Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (Sofia) in a Boeing 747SP platform. The Securaplane cameras allow the crew operating the Sofia telescope to watch every aspect of the operation from eight zoom-camera units, 18X optical and 4X digital. Features include automatic/manual focus control, freeze-frame, low-light operation and digital signal processing.

According to v-p of sales and marketing John Gattasse, Securaplane is currently working on a next-generation high-definition camera line covering quad, vertical stabilizer, glareshield and belly (quad- and single-camera) products.

One high-definition camera has already been certified for helicopter operations, said Gattasse, and the firm expects to bring the entire HD line to market late this year. Securaplane is also working with three OEMs to upgrade systems currently in service.

As a retrofit upgrade, the major change will be within the camera itself, "but it keeps the same footprint within the system," Gattasse explained. "[It retains] the same housing. We wanted a simple upgrade rather than a whole new design requiring new certification." With the addition of a high-speed video cable the HD cameras will be fully backward compatible.

Flight Display Systems of Alpharetta, Ga., is a newcomer to the industry with a six-ounce, 480-line, cockpit headliner-mounted "pilot's eye view" camera. It comes with an 8-mm lens and a second 4-mm lens for wider-angle viewing. It is mounted on the headliner to avoid direct sunlight, which degrades the image. According to director of international sales Nick Gray, a "near-DVD-quality high-resolution" version is in the works, and the company expects to introduce it at this year's NBAA Convention in October. Also in development is the "SuperVision" belly camera.

Latecoere Eyes Business Aviation Market

French aviation equipment manufacturer Groupe Latecoere has a longer history. The company's Landscape digital video cameras are installed in a variety of aircraft, in particular airliners and most notably the Airbus A380.

The Landmark 720x48-pixel camera was mounted on the tail of the Qantas A380 that suffered an uncontained engine failure on November 4 last year. According to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau preliminary report, one of the pilots came back to the cabin after the engine failure to ascertain the damage after a passenger reported that the video showed fluid leaking from the left wing.

Latecoere's Landscape camera is available to Airbus and Boeing buyers as a tail-mounted package for entertainment and as a belly-mounted system for taxiing and other ground maneuvering.

According to head of business development Xavier Carrier, "We have been getting inquiries from business aviation and we are considering this market."

UK-based AD Aerospace is also a worldwide provider of exterior video cameras for both entertainment and security/surveillance purposes.

According to Mike Horne, managing director of the Cheshire-based company, "Our approach is a single camera pod that can be used in multiple locations on the airplane exterior." Pratt & Whitney has one of AD's cameras mounted on the fuselage of its flying testbed to record engines undergoing flight-testing.

The pod housings are made of titanium and use sapphire glass for maximum wear resistance. The package is designed for altitudes up to 50,000 feet. The pod is hermetically sealed with a dry nitrogen purge to avoid internal misting and icing.

German completion and refurbishment specialist Lufthansa Technik has equipped 16 aircraft with exterior cameras for entertainment and/or security purposes.

According to a Lufthansa Technik spokesman, the preferred installation is the vertical stabilizer. It has been the centerπs experience that anticollision lights tend to interfere with video cameras installed in the fuselage, "especially the forward and aft views."

"There's no doubting the popularity of these cameras," said Hogge. "We recently delivered a Bombardier business jet with everything–glareshield, belly and tail. Pilots use them and passengers enjoy the view."