The cabins of new and even some older business aircraft are becoming a nexus for the latest developments in commercial electronics market. Passengers are not only watching video on the latest high-definition flat screen monitors but also are using an array of personal devices, including iPhones, iPads and Androids, to connect to the Web and, increasingly, to control many of the functions of the cabin systems. The growing use of these technologies is putting pressure on designers of cabin management systems (CMS) to accommodate the newest products while preparing for those that may still only be on the drawing boards.
The emergence of these new products has not changed the fundamental role of the CMS, which is “to provide controls for the audiovisual and data distribution, lighting and any kind of environmental controls,” such as adjusting temperature, said Lupita Ho, principal marketing manager for cabin systems at Rockwell Collins. However, these products are forcing CMS manufacturers to design flexible systems that support the latest digital applications.
For the most part, system adjustments are being pressed by consumer electronics innovations and the customer demand for the newest electronic devices. “We are very much driven by consumer electronics market. Just like people expected to have a DVD [and not VHS] player 10 years ago, today they expect to have a Blu-ray player” in the cabin, said Nick Gray, director of international sales at Flight Displays Systems, based in Alpharetta, Ga. The importance of the electronics market is easily seen in the company’s CMS promotional materials that boast Flight Display Systems’ support for most advanced high-definition 1080p video or PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 game consoles. The company even offers gold-plated organic light emitting diode dynamic switches among its features.
In this rapidly changing market, it is difficult to keep up with the many new vendor offerings, but one trend is clear –– the convergence of the handheld devices, especially Apple handheld products, with the onboard cabin systems.
“The most frequent request we receive concerns the integration of carry-on media devices [most notably the iPad] into the [in-flight entertainment] system,” said Marcus Garrett, business development, Goodrich Interiors, Cabin Electronic Systems. “In the past, the emphasis … was on distributing the audio and video, but now it is in terms of system control.”
Goodrich, which upped its presence in this market with the acquisition last year of cabin management assets of DeCrane Holdings, is building up its support for the Apple handheld devices. As an officially licensed Apple developer, the company can, for example, “provide a never-ending stream of innovations to our valued customers,” Garrett said. On many aircraft with the company’s CMSs, passengers can simply download the Goodrich app from iTunes and “begin to leverage their new toys.”
Goodrich is not alone in its embrace of the Apple devices. Many, if not all, CMS developers are investing in applications that take advantage of the popular Apple products. This year, Rockwell Collins introduced CabinRemote, which can turn an iPhone or iPod Touch into a two-way remote that can control the key functions of the company’s Venue CMS.
“The ability to easily accommodate popular consumer electronic devices is one of the most distinctive features of Venue because of its unique open systems architecture,” said Dave Austin, vice president and general manager, Cabin Systems for Rockwell Collins. “The CabinRemote application demonstrates Venue’s ability to provide our customers with the convenience of having the same capabilities they are familiar with at home, such as the iPhone, available onboard their aircraft.”
Similarly, Custom Control Concepts, based in Kent, Wash., offers iPlane, an app that allows “iPad/iPhone/iPods to be used as remote controls” for every function in the in-flight entertainment (IFE) system and CMS, including audio/video on-demand, said Bill Dalton, global sales and marketing at Custom Control Concepts. The company designs custom IFE and CMS digital systems for a wide variety of fixed wing and rotary aircraft including wide-body Boeing and Airbus platforms.
Also this year, Flight Display Systems introduced and installed an Android software application for use with its Select CMS, which allows passengers to control all cabin functions from their mobile phone or tablet computer. The 7-inch Android-powered tablet controls cabin functions including lighting, window shades, Blu-ray player, movie library and Moving Map. The wireless system operates via Bluetooth for full control anywhere inside the aircraft cabin. The launch customer for Flight Display Systems’ Android CMS software is an unnamed operator of a Gulfstream III business jet.
However, as the possible uses for these technologies grow so do the challenges that vendors face beginning with managing user expectations.
Like many other consumers, aircraft owners “are connected and networked all the time with their current electronics, so they expect no less functionality with their aircraft and possibly even more,” said Rachel Bahr, director, business development and marketing at Emteq, of New Berlin, Wis.
“The difficulty is that customers see all that can be done with portable devices, such as the iPod, and do not understand … their potential limitations” especially when they are installed on aircraft, Dalton said. For example, “we have had several requests to utilize tablets to replace personal monitors at seats,” he said. However, “these devices do not have a video input, like a monitor or standard TV, so there will be a number of sources [common to VIP jets] that … [cannot] be distributed to the tablet,” such as Blu-ray, SkyShow Moving Map and cameras.
“These devices … cannot be transcoded to Ethernet and transmitted over Wi-Fi without significant latency.,” Dalton said.
Meanwhile, the rapid change in consumer electronics industry can also itself be a test for CMS developers.
“It is definitely something that is difficult … for the OEMs to keep up with, and I think that is why we have so much success on the retrofit side,” said Gray. For example, an aircraft customer buying a brand new Gulfstream G550 today is getting cabin electronics that were current from five or 10 years ago “because that was when the aircraft was designed … and certified,” Gray said.
“It is challenging to offer a system that is not outdated by the time it is certified, so the solution … is to offer a system that is adaptable to growing technology evolution,” said Bahr.
Looking to the future, officials generally agree the increase in use and number of personal electronic devices will continue to be a key industry issue for some time. For many companies, it is becoming increasingly important to be able to distinguish between those products that will last and those that will be a passing fad. The goal is to identify solid trends that are more appropriate to the aircraft environment with it longer development and certification timeline. Rockwell Collins, for example, established a team to examine the trends in the consumer market.
Based on that research, the company said it is now working with Android technology “because we know that is going to be staying for awhile,” Ho said. Other key growing trends Rockwell Collins is following are increased access to AVOD and Digital Living Network Alliance streaming content, she said.
Business aircraft manufacturers and designers of CMSs have been adapting by shifting over the past few years, for example, from analog to digital architectures. “Moving forward all of the OEMs are making aircraft that are going to transition to the digital, ‘hi-def’ market … I don’t foresee them going back to any analog solutions,” said Ho of Rockwell Collins.
The CMS that Gulfstream has built for its new G650 provides “digital control of cabin systems through touch screens, capacitive touch switches and Passenger Control Units,” according to the company. Passengers can use the iPod Touch devices to control the cabin systems, including entertainment equipment, lighting and temperature.
Meanwhile, Embraer will be using Honeywell’s latest CMS offering, Ovation Select, for its new Legacy 450/500 aircraft. The new CMS, which is built on a digital architecture and Ethernet backbone, is controlled by icon-based, touch-screen interfaces and enables in-flight connectivity through passengers’ personal devices. “The second generation Ovation Select digital cabin system delivers unprecedented connectivity to meet the expectations and needs of today’s business passenger,” said Rob Wilson, president of Honeywell Business and General Aviation. “It is scalable to satisfy the growing bandwidth demands of tomorrow’s high-tech communication devices.”
However, in the aftermarket, the determined move to digital architecture can be an obstacle, said Garrett. “While the industry [including Goodrich] has these improved methods of delivering entertainment, the cost associated is often times very difficult to accept for an owner/operator.” Goodrich is targeting the aftermarket with a system that Garrett says “allows us to leverage our new digital audio and video technology by offering the capability to incorporate digital as well as high-definition entertainment into existing systems with reduced impact, particularly with aircraft … that are in service and already have [earlier versions of] Goodrich IFE/CMS.”
Fight Display Systems uses what Gray calls “magic boxes” to retrofit the latest HD systems on an aircraft while allowing the older analog technology to continue to control functions like lighting and window shades. “A lot of times, [this can involve] … just a simple relay or a discreet output,” he said.
Rockwell Collins said in the development of its Venue system, the company designed it so it could bring “technology inserts” that permit it to integrate new digital technologies, said Ho. For example, HDMI or USB inputs can be easily installed on the CMS to allow portable equipment to be connected to the system and “distribute video or audio content to all the monitors into the aircraft,” she said. With more than 70 Venue aircraft currently in service, “we have the largest installed base of ‘high-def’ cabin management systems in the market,” Ho said. Aircraft using the systems include the Cessna Citation CJ4, Beechcraft King Air, Airbus Corporate Jetliner and Boeing Business Jet.
In the current economic environment, many industry officials concede technology costs can be a key issue for operators. “Price is a driving factor for the move from large traditional systems to a (adaptable) backbone architecture style cabin system,” that can use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components, Bahr said. “If the cabin system is not leveraging COTS equipment, then the speed of technology will make the cabin solution outdated before the AC [air worthiness] commissions. Once you embrace this paradigm, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to stay current with today’s apps and hardware.”
As the manufacturers of cell phones and personal entertainment devices drive developments in technology miniaturization, they are putting “more power, speed and options … into smaller and smaller packages … [which] allows us to provide the same [capability] to our customers,” said Dalton. The growth of smaller and often more capable components “simplifies [our] … product line and installation and reduces wiring and weight.”
Additionally, the increased use of fiber optic rather than the traditional copper wiring will help offset additional weight requirements spurred by these products. A lot of the new digital systems, such as Rockwell Collins’ Venue system, will be “going to fiber” making the cables smaller and lighter and easier to install, Ho said.
For its new Citation 10, for example, Cessna developed with Dallas-based Heads Up Technologies a CMS that integrates its cabin electrical systems, avionics and communications through a fiber optic backbone. The Citation 10 “requires almost 200 feet of cable for the CMS; a fiber optic backbone weighs less than one-tenth what a copper cable system weighs,” according to Cessna.
Next month: Wire and Cable
Avionics Magazine’s Product Focus is a monthly feature that examines some of the latest trends in different market segments of the avionics industry. It does not represent a comprehensive survey of all companies and products in these markets. Avionics Product Focus Editor Ed McKenna can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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