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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Product Focus: Cabin Management Systems

Older, analog generation management systems are being replaced by digital systems with contemporary interfaces

By Barry Rosenberg

The transition from a first-generation product to a second-generation one usually involves some bug fixes, a tweaking of the product to offer more functionality and maybe lower cost. That’s not the case with the latest cabin management systems, where second-generation products now being introduced are based on all-digital technology, as opposed to the analog technology of first-generation systems.

These new systems, of course, have the ability to turn the lights on and off, make sure the toilets flush, set the cabin temperature, move the shades up and down and position the seats all the primary housekeeping chores of a basic cabin management system. More importantly, all-digital, second-generation systems give business jet passengers greater ability to mimic the consumer electronics experience they’re used to from home, namely, the ability to display high-definition video with surround sound.

“Cabin management systems have gone from one switch to a network of switches connected via an analog network that does multiple things, to a digital, broadband Ethernet backbone that allows us to tie everything together into one network,” said Bill Rowell, Honeywell Aerospace technical sales manager for cabin products.

It sounds simple, but there were a number of technical challenges associated with the transition.

“Taking anything from an analog architecture to a digital one is a step gain change in the technology, so almost none of our components were able to make the transition directly across,” said Rowell. “We had to identify our switch and router, which would essentially be the hub, and then all the components that were going to communicate across that backbone.”

In Honeywell’s Ovation C series analog cabin management system, an interface box was needed for everything that communicates across the network. The infrared remote needed a box, temperature control needed a box and plugging in a laptop computer required a box. There are about 1,500 of these systems installed worldwide.

As Honeywell moved its cabin management systems into the digital world with the Ovation E (for Ethernet) series, the capability to communicate across the network was put into each of the sources and clients. For its newest product, Ovation Select, system monitors will have a direct communication to the Cabin Interface Unit (CIU), which is essentially the hub for the entire system.

The system will also be scalable to handle larger business jets like the Boeing BBJ or Airbus ACJ. The CIU can support up to 24 clients such as a PC, Blu-ray player, iPod dock or high-definition monitor. Once the number of clients is maxed out, another CIU can be added to communicate over the gigabyte Ethernet backbone.

“For example, on our (company-owned) Gulfstream G550, we use two CIUs because we have that many clients,” said Rowell. “I’ve just put together a quote for a BBJ and it will have five CIUs. It is scaleable all across the board.”

Besides the capability for high-definition video, passengers also experience the capabilities of a digital backbone through their control interface unit.

“Where the big change will be going from first generation to second is the user interface,” said Rowell. “Typically, in an analog system, he’ll have a membrane switch at his seat to control the functions, or he may have a three-line or a four-line LCD. So he will have three or four buttons on one side, the other side will be hard buttons, and they’ll control a soft menu structure, and dependent upon which button you push, the monochrome LCD will put up the appropriate menu so he can control his functions.

“As you move to Ovation Select, that all changes. We will certainly still have the membrane switches for those who want them but our primary user interface will be a full-color LCD touch screen, which can be fully customized. Rather than a monochrome LCD with a fixed menu structure, it will be icon-based and work much like an iPhone or iPod touch where you have slide and select capabilities. In 15 seconds they can figure out the menu structure and how things work to control the entire cabin. That is a dramatic difference.”

A similar interface can be mounted on a bulkhead in the galley area so the flight attendant will also have control of cabin systems and in-flight entertainment.

Honeywell will begin the certification process of Ovation Select in August when it removes an Ovation C series cabin management system from one of its two company-owned Falcon 900EX business jets and replaces it with the Select system for testing. The launch customer for Ovation Select is Embraer, with certification on its new-production platforms scheduled in about a year, Rowell said. In the meantime, Ovation Select will be offered as an aftermarket option.

Aviation is always a couple years behind commercial electronics because of the time it takes for safety certifications in the aerospace environment, so it’s satisfying for the industry to catch up with the type of interface that owners of the iPhone have enjoyed for the last couple years.

The interface is a new element of the latest generation of cabin management system for Emteq, of New Berlin, Wis., which was one of the first companies to introduce a digital backbone a decade ago.

“In the last year, I’ve seen a big focus on the user interface and the user experience with the system,” said Cory Wasniewski, product manager for cabin management and in-flight entertainment products at Emteq, which offers the SkyPro cabin management system. “We’re now able to bring more of a style, or an ergonomic design, to the interface, so even if you’re just turning on and off the reading light, that experience is more like that of an iPhone.”

Emteq’s digital backbone is a proprietary bus system from Custom Control Concepts, of Kent., Wash., called C-Stream. Emteq is the only company offering C-Stream to business aviation, according to Wasniewski, with all other cabin management systems based on Ethernet. Custom Control Concepts sells C-Stream to commercial aviation, leaving business aviation to Emteq.

Though SkyPro has been digital since its inception a decade ago, it is only the new-generation system that is able to transition from standard digital video to high-definition video. “We have a unique architecture that lets us add modules or change some components instead of changing an entire system,” said Wasniewski. “So what we’ve done is change our digital video switchers to high-definition video switchers. But the underlying functionality all remains the same.”

C-Stream is configured as a “free topology” network, which means it can be wired in any fashion without the potential for a single point of failure. In contrast, an Ethernet system is configured for all devices to go through a switch or router.

“If that router was to fail, everything else in the system would stop working,” Wasniewski said. “With free topology, all the devices are connected to the same wire so they all communicate to each other independently and don’t have to go through a router or middleman to talk to each other.”

In October 2009, Honda Aircraft said it would install the SkyPro cabin management system and in-flight entertainment system on its HondaJet. At the time, Honda Aircraft executives cited the ability to scale and customize SkyPro because of its architecture. SkyPro includes SkyShow moving map and Audio and Video On Demand.

Regardless of topology, business jet operators are becoming less interested in the specifics of the backbone and more interested in what they can bring to the passengers in the back of the cabin.

“There’s been an interesting evolution in the market, where in the previous eight years or so there was a lot of focus on backbone on the part of suppliers, as opposed to delivering new value out of that,” said Andrew Mohr, manager of product marketing for Rockwell Collins business aviation cabin systems.

“So what we’re trying to do is balance technology with an increased focus on justification for those new technologies to bring some sort of benefit either to the end user or to the OEM itself in terms of competitiveness, reliability and ease of installation.”

And on the list of new value for the passenger, none is higher than connectivity for personal devices. The hardware to deliver that connectivity often consists of separate components than those used for cabin management systems. But the two are beginning to converge.

“You can start to share components such as routers between the cabin system and the connectivity (piece),” said Mohr. “There is not an abundance of these services yet, but you would expect them to merge over time so that you would have integrated services into the cabin system.”

Mohr likened the intersection of cabin management and connectivity to the evolution of the company’s Airshow map product, which started out providing position information but evolved to also offer data.

“We were able to integrate news, weather and financial services into the Airshow moving map. We can offer similar capabilities with our Venue system, where we can offer integrated data delivery through some of our Venue components,” he said, referring to the Rockwell Collins high-definition cabin management system introduced in 2007.

“Venue has two key things that make that possible,” Mohr said. “One is a dedicated backbone for the high-definition video. It also has an Ethernet ring that supports the transmission of data throughout the system. Those two things can also be integrated to combine entertainment with data to show things like a stock ticker on the video.”

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.


Companies

AlsterAero www.alsteraero.com
Atego www.atego.com
Cobham www.cobham.com
Custom Control Concepts www.custom-control.com
DeCrane Aerospace www.decraneaerospace.com
Diehl Aerospace www.diehl-aerospace.com
DPI Labs www.dpilabs.com
Emteq www.emteq.com
Flight Display Systems www.flightdisplay.com
General Dynamics Aviation Services www.gdaviationservices.com
Goodrich www.goodrich.com
Honeywell www.honeywell.com
International Communications Group (ICG) www.icg.aero
Lufthansa Technik www.lufthansa-technik.com
Midcoast Aviation www.midcoastaviation.com
Panasonic Avionics Corp. www.panasonic.aero
Rockwell Collins www.rockwellcollins.com
Rosen Aviation www.rosenaviation.com
Thales www.thalesgroup.com
Zodiac Aerospace www.zodiacaerospace.com

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