In-flight communications and connectivity has evolved dramatically in recent years, and continual embedded technology advancements help to speed and simplify development even further. Next-generation systems are driven by increasing passenger expectations and the proliferation of interactive digital technology that continues to redefine consumer entertainment and communication. In turn, the in-flight entertainment (IFE) market is booming — with new players, innovative technologies and competitive opportunities to differentiate service and create new revenue streams.
Yet even as technology boundaries are pushed to enable enhanced and more consumer-like IFE options, the demanding physical restrictions of the aircraft remain the same size, weight and power (SWaP), thermal requirements, shock and vibration considerations. These strict requirements all must be addressed in a high-availability solution with reduced deployment and operating costs. Appropriately, embedded expertise honed in commercial industrial and defense arenas is translating effectively to the environments found in commercial airborne systems. The same technology that is modernizing military networks is enabling a much more sophisticated and cost-effective breed of commercial in-flight systems, bringing wireless IFE and connectivity to commercial airlines, business jets, flight operations and crew services.
Several distinct onboard system architectures are emerging. An airline may choose to install a server and wireless access point to provide only content limited to that on the server. This means customers bring their own device or the airlines may rent or provide a tablet and all content would be localized with no internet connectivity. To provide a higher quality of service and also allow early release movie content, the airlines may choose to install wireless seat-back displays. Lastly, the airline may choose during this retrofit process to install equipment to provide the connectivity system. The connectivity system could also be installed at a later date and then easily networked to the avionics server.
Which deployment option is chosen depends on the airline’s priorities and revenue strategy for the level of service being offered, whether it’s live streaming video to each seat or simply connecting personal devices via the access points throughout the aircraft and providing localized content. Most importantly, all of these deployed systems have embraced the shift from wired to wireless demonstrating the move to extend everyday wireless connectivity to the aircraft environment. Traditionally IFE deployments were implemented through full-wired seatback displays, which added a tremendous amount of cost and weight to the airline.
Today, wireless vs. wired is taking the lead, illustrating how IFE development options follow a path similar to consumer electronics and can essentially create an onboard intranet for passenger use. Scalability is essential, enabling performance for a range of user-load scenarios; reliability is required to deliver standards-based Wi-Fi services for a full range of user devices. Modular systems are ideal supporting cost-effective maintenance and flexible deployments that include the ability to seamlessly connect to “backhaul” equipment on the plane that provides the connectivity from ground-based transponder towers or satellite-based communications.
Wireless solutions eliminate extensive wiring throughout the aircraft cabin and its associated costs, weight, deployment challenges and maintenance. The result is essentially an onboard intranet enabling wireless connectivity for every passenger to access content on an onboard server with their own laptops, smartphones or tablets. Besides being comparatively inexpensive and lightweight, such a system dramatically expands traditional IFE features with services ranging from online shopping and reservations, to destination information, real-time travel information and seat-to-seat chat.
Today, aircraft equipped with in-flight Internet still may lack installation of the hardware required to support Wi-Fi for laptops and common mobile devices. Wired Ethernet ports circumvent this limitation; however, passengers are limited to selected seats where ports are available. Competition for connecting ports may also increase simply because passengers carry two or more devices that require an Internet connection. Wired connections may also be relatively easy to certify and carry a negligible advantage in connection speed, however iPhones and BlackBerrys cannot connect to the Internet through an Ethernet port. The growing industry preference is for full Wi-Fi connectivity in the main cabin via wireless servers and access points; this eliminates cables, allows the aircraft to avoid restrictions on where devices can be used and ultimately supports a much greater number and range of devices.
Integrated cabin wireless access points (CWAP) meet these challenges, and enable deployment of onboard wireless networks. These systems are lightweight and low power, and can be implemented to provide a fully integrated wireless solution, with internet connection via broadband equipment for air-to-ground or air-to-satellite link. Enterprise class CWAPs are designed for use in commercial wide-body aircraft, business jets and regional aircraft and can support AC or DC input power based on the configuration option. By leveraging the IEEE 802.11n specification, these systems increase bandwidth and maximize throughput up to 300 megabits per second (mbps) to wireless clients onboard.
Growing demand for bandwidth within the cabin and the trend toward providing video streaming to all passengers, existing wireless access points using 802.11a/b/g wireless standards are not able to support large numbers of high throughput users on a plane. In turn, today’s CWAPs are ideally backwards compatible to 802.11 a/b/g standards, offering a migration path for airlines and extending the value of currently deployed standards. The flexible and adaptive architecture of these types of systems provides intelligent features for specific aircraft needs; the value to airlines and aircraft owners is streamlined enhancement of overall performance and passenger experience, at a dramatically reduced total cost of ownership.
General purpose airborne servers are also evolving to meet advanced communication application requirements for Ethernet-based network installations on both linefit and retrofit aircraft. A general purpose networking server can be used for many applications and can provide many terabytes of SSD storage. In combination with the wireless access point, this allows for an enterprise class wireless networking solution on a plane that has been tested and approved by FAA (PMA). These highly integrated application-ready platforms are specifically designed to reduce deployment time providing a reliable, flexible and high performance framework for airborne flight information systems. Qualified to DO-160G and optimized for a range of flight information systems, these server platforms enable fast-track development of applications for crew and passenger web servers, flight maintenance or manifest servers, connectivity servers, wireless content servers and IFE servers.
Design expertise honed in developing shipboard electronics, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and aerospace systems is being creatively applied to new system mounting scenarios for commercial aircraft. Wireless servers and access points are optimized in their system packaging, allowing quick access for functions such as changing out storage modules or downloading data. Today’s CWAP modules are designed for easy mounting in a range of accessible but out-of-the-way bulkhead locations, enabling airline engineers to place them virtually anywhere within existing aircraft to provide optimal network coverage. In turn, server units are designed for efficient mounting within existing space configurations, while also considering easy access for maintenance, data updates, and storage uploads and change-outs.
Wireless servers and access points fit seamlessly into the physical constraints of existing aircraft, and further offer performance certified to the demands of rugged airborne operating environments. Optimal servers and CWAP units are compliant with appropriate standards for airborne deployment and operation. Key among these is RTCA/DO-160G, which defines a full spectrum of environmental specifications and test criteria to assure the safety and reliability of all airborne electronics. In addition, these units are ideally designed to meet ARINC mounting, interoperability and connectivity standards to provide for easy integration with other systems and efficient maintainability. Being standards-based and FAA/EASA certified ensures fast deployment, simplifying the process for airlines by including required FAA documentation, processes and approvals.
The increasing focus on wireless IFE represents significant opportunity for airlines, adding value and service for passengers, and creating new long-term revenue streams. As sophisticated devices have enabled mobile computing in all facets of everyday life, so has the aircraft cabin become simply another mobile environment. The traveling public’s expectation of connectivity has grown along with widespread consumer acceptance of personal mobile devices, and now correlates to a much higher level of comfort, access and entertainment in their traveling experience.
The scope of potential IFE services is clearer than ever, and has broadened from its initial focus on Web browsing and email access, to delivering wireless video entertainment and on-demand video/audio content throughout the passenger cabin. However, its deployment challenges are significant and systems must meet a range of extreme performance demands coupled with flexibility, reliability, bandwidth and an always evolving spectrum of high-speed networking needs. As airlines vie for market share, wireless IFE stands to play an important role in managing rising costs and heightened competition for passengers. By capitalizing on cutting edge, modular and high performance systems that are pre-certified, the avionics industry is poised to adapt competing more effectively with cost-effective and increasingly sophisticated wireless airborne technology.
RJ McLaren is a portfolio manager, Commercial Avionics and Military Products, at Kontron America.