As a writer you have an ongoing struggle knowing that what you script could be old news by the time it gets published. That being so, can you imagine the challenges bestowed on vendors who first must design; then market, manufacture, and certify a product before it can be introduced and sold to the industry?
With technology moving so fast and one to- three-years required to beget a product from a conceptual design to the market, obsolescence is like a vulture circling its prey. And on the flip side of the coin, an operator looking to upgrade their aircraft could easily become entangled in the perpetual waiting cycle of hoping to get the latest technology and the best value for their investment.
It’s not uncommon for a consumer to purchase the latest smartphone or tablet one day and then replace the unit just months later when the newest version comes to market. That doesn’t mean that it is practical to upgrade your aircraft every time a new technology comes along, however. Matters are not helped by the fact that the retail products are available today and being used by your passengers, and thus they expect the same functionality onboard your aircraft, though.
So what is one to do? Reading this article is a worthy start. You will be introduced to products and technology currently available along with what the near future holds for the In-Flight Entertainment and Communications (IFEC) market. This will be placed alongside the reasons why the industry has to safeguard itself from the impulse to just “carry on” all their IFE equipment (as in carry aboard an iPad with all the capabilities to provide entertainment and connectivity).
Cabin Electronics is the hottest market for corporate aircraft today and is projected to grow 12% annually through 2020. All eyes are on the consumer. What products are they buying? How are they using these products? How can the industry implement and certify these products for corporate aircraft?
Unless your aircraft has undergone a cabin retrofit in the last year or two, your IFE system is probably already outdated.
START WITH THE “C” IN IFEC No, I am not trying to have you read and write as the ancient Egyptians (right to left), but Connectivity as I see it is the key bridge to a differentiator in IFE installations, and is thus foremost in the IFEC equation.
Next time you are waiting for a flight, shopping at the mall, or sitting in the park, take a look at the people around you. Many are attached to their Personal Electronic Devices (PEDs) either making a call; texting someone; sending an email; or checking their social network page. The connectivity is either through a GSM/GPRS network or Wi-Fi hotspot.
To deliver the true passenger experience you must deliver the same mundane service we all take for granted on the ground, and reciprocate it at 30,000 feet-plus. Let me caution you to the biggest misnomer in IFEC marketing today: All the adverts, the pictures, the demonstrations at the shows that you’ve doubtless seen – all portraying PEDs interfacing with the aircraft IFE equipment to send texts, watch movies, etc; without the “C”-part (connectivity), you have nothing but a stand-alone PED whose battery will need charging shortly.
Let me introduce you to another “C”- word: ‘Certification’. This is also vitally important because all on-board GSM/GPRS networks or Wi-Fi hotspots require a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC). The good news is that connectivity and Wi-Fi STCs are currently approved every month for different airframes around the world, but they do add cost and complexity to the installation.
[Two further simple rules apply to the installation: The faster the speed of the connectivity option, the higher the cost of installation will ultimately be. And some options (HGA and Ku-Band installations, for example) are only available to larger airframes owing to antenna size.]
THE “E” IN IFEC Entertainment by definition is “to hold the attention with something amusing or diverting.” Whether traveling by airline or corporate jet, the goal is to arrive safely and on time. The differentiators is the travelers’ experience during the flight. Does this need assessing on your aircraft?
For those that have a limited budget, you could look to get a few options that would supplement your existing system to give it a fresh, new look. Obsolete technology can be replaced with the latest functionality, and if planned well could also save you some money and down-time. Option examples include: • VIP Touch screen • High Definition (HD) Monitor • Blu-Ray player • Media center • Audio Video On Demand (AVOD) • iPod Docking station
These are all types of upgrades that can be made during a small inspection or even between scheduled flights. Interior access should be minimal – typically the Blu-Ray player can be mounted in the vicinity of the HD monitor. New HDMI cabling would need to be run between the two units, however.
Based on research there is a definite trend at this time for handheld devices with onboard cabin systems. Vendors have been eager recently to showcase how their customized “applications” would allow tablets and smartphones to control their Cabin Management Systems (CMS). One example was the introduction of Cabin Remote from Rockwell Collins that turns an iPad, iPod or iPhone into a two-way remote that can control content within Rockwell’s new Venue CMS.
Offering the ability to control your entire CMS and everything inside it with one simple HD touch screen interface undoubtedly is a very attractive proposition. Imagine your passengers cruising along at 30,000 feet and utilizing their tablets to review email, visit the corporate VPN, browse the web, control the CMS and even change the cabin temperature… And that experience can be enhanced through auxiliary panels outfitted with HDMI and USB inputs that allow you to view and control content from your personal device onto the CMS.
Smart TV technology is now integrated into this generation of galley, bulkhead and touchscreen displays, which can control, store and disseminate audio and video content throughout the system and even allow you to interface with your carry-on device. The intuitive, graphical displays are customized to give passengers the same form and function as their own personal devices.
For the most part, aircraft that have been recently purchased or those that have been owned and operated 6-8 years are perfect candidates for an IFEC upgrade that can incorporate elements of, or all of the above. These aircraft are due a major inspection and/or interior refurbishment. Either way the interior is going to be removed – so to save money and downtime this would also be an appropriate time to perform a complete overhaul of the system.
THE “IF” IN IFEC The I.F. stands for In-Flight. By its definition In-Flight means you cannot simply pull over to the side of the road if an emergency situation presents itself to use your carry-on device! While stating the blazingly obvious, this should also draw your attention to another increasing trend that could have a serious effect on the safety of your aircraft; namely the growing mindset among consumers that certified IFE systems are outdated, and therefore owners and operators look to satisfy their passengers with nothing but carry-on devices.
Let me illustrate further with a few unnerving situations the Banyan Quality Assurance (QA) team has found lately: • An electrical outlet connected to a power strip • Extension cords in the cockpit and cabin • Home Entertainment equipment secured by Velcro • Interface cables in the cockpit attached to the Yoke • Suction cup antennas on the windshield and the glare-shield
Do you get the picture? These are accidents (or at the very least incidents) waiting to happen. Products designed for the consumer electronics market should augment the onboard IFE system, not replace it!
Did you know that some PEDs are capable of producing 4-Watts of power? That is why the FAA and regulatory agencies around the world require EMI testing on the aircraft to ensure its operating systems are not effected by the operation of the device.
Monitor installations are certified by Structural engineers to ensure the bulkhead can handle the load in case the pilot has a hard landing or enters heavy turbulence. Proper installation procedures and adherence are there to protect the passengers and crew.
It doesn’t matter that the boss asked for a makeshift installation – it should be your job to illustrate to him why we have IFE equipment that has passed arduous testing to IAW regulatory standards. I’ll bet you wouldn’t let him circumvent installing a Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) because you can always look out the window! Why let him circumvent IAW-tested IFEC equipment?
NEXT GEN Leading IFE companies are designing their systems with configurable software to allow for new technology to integrate without the need for hardware upgrades. Designers are not just focused on supporting today’s newest products, but also those that still may be on the drawing boards. The switch to digital technology allows the flexibility to upgrade the system with a simple wiring modification, supported by a software application. 2011 and 2012 will be remembered as years in which applications were introduced that control the functionality of CMS through personal devices – but where do we go from here? How about streaming content from a moving map, Blu-Ray DVD or camera to a tablet or laptop?
The introduction of Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) certified products into the next generation of portable devices will revolutionize how these products exchange content. It enables different brands of digital products to interact and share digital content, making it easier to connect and enjoy music, videos and photos.
There are currently more than 230 DLNA Certified brands, and the number continues to grow. Leading IFE companies like Rockwell Collins have DLNA on their whiteboard and on a time-line to introduce it to the aviation industry. DLNA-certified products can connect either through an Ethernet connection or a Wireless Access Point. Tomorrow’s tablets will not only control the content, but will view the content on board corporate aircraft.
Developments in technology miniaturization allow more speed, features and power into smaller packages – and this is currently being introduced into IFE equipment. A good example is the Rockwell Collins’ Airshow moving map whose memory was initially stored on a disc hard drive, followed by a downloadable flash drive. The next generation will have the 3D moving map software embedded into their HD smart displays allowing content to be available to all equipment on the network. Tablets loaded with an Airshow application will receive streaming flight information.
Moving maps continue to evolve into an entertainment option in lieu of their original purpose of displaying the current geographical position of the aircraft. Innovative 3D maps deliver an unparalleled level of graphical realism. Map views that can zoom down to street level detail and provide points of interest both in graphical and text content.
Virtual pilot’s eye view and window view allows you to see virtually what the pilot is seeing and view the terrain out the window even if it’s night time. Graphical designer scan take digital photos of your aircraft and create life-like recreations of your aircraft on the moving map.
Meanwhile, the introduction of the digital architecture has made the systems easier and lighter to install. Older analog systems required discrete wiring between all the components within the IFE system. Today, an Ethernet Cat5e cable can distribute 1080p HD video, audio, data, command and control in addition to 28Vdc on one cable. These advancements have lead to approximately 50% less time to install a system, up to 35% reduction in weight and 40% reduction in component count.
Ethernet and Fiber Optic cables are the future to support the growing bandwidth demands of tomorrow’s high-tech devices.
Bottom line: the “IFE” and the “C” combined give you the most features at the best value for your aircraft. The corporate aircraft is a business tool which, when outfitted correctly, can give you a competitive advantage – but who said the passengers can’t have a little fun too?