Business & GA, Commercial

Plugging into Airborne Digital Backbones

By David Jensen  | June 1, 2001
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This is expected to be a big year for Connexion by Boeing, the two-way broadband (or high data-rate) service planned by the airframe manufacturer to deliver personalized Internet and other communications to each airplane passenger seat. Airbus, too, plans to incorporate comparable capabilities in its models this year.

And this means that 2001 could be a very big year for an emerging company called, appropriately, Intheairnet. It hopes to support, and thus, capitalize on Boeing’s and Airbus’s digital passenger communications services.

Connexion by Boeing is already available to the business jet market, but its installation of ethernet wiring to passenger seats in its air transport aircraft is planned for late 2001–and that, of course, opens an entirely new and much larger market for this comprehensive service. Meanwhile, Europe’s Airbus is installing "digital backbones" in its aircraft.

The intent of Irvine, Calif.-based Intheairnet, according to its founder and chairman, Michael Rogerson, is to achieve digital convergence by providing digital "building blocks" for "virtual aircraft networks." The company wants to make sure it has products ready, so as to be "on the ground level of this new on-board communications technology," Rogerson says.

"We see ourselves ‘completing’ systems like Connexion by Boeing," Rogerson continues. "We’re designing our system to be compatible with Connexion by Boeing."

"Neither Boeing nor Airbus has made its final decision on its digital backbone," says Rogerson, who adds that the key to the virtual aircraft network’s success for either manufacturer is bandwidth. "We suggest more bandwidth than 100 Base T for data transmission. That’s 100 megabits per second, and it’s important, to transfer a whole lot of data throughout the aircraft."

Regardless of the choices made by Boeing and Airbus, "there will be the ARINC 763 standard, driven by SITA and Inmarsat, so our products will work in all existing antenna systems," Rogerson adds. "They will plug into anybody’s network.

"It could be a fiber optic network," he tells Avionics Magazine, "and we hope some day it will be a wireless one."

Rogerson has big ambitions for Intheairnet, but no illusions of its role in aerospace communications and entertainment. "To survive, we won’t go head-to-head with the 500-pound gorillas," he says, of the major systems integrators. "We’re not out to compete with an end-to-end solution. We have to come up with niche technologies."

Technology Crossover

Michael Rogerson, incidentally, chairs another company of his making: Rogerson Kratos, which develops and produces instrumentation and advanced displays for aircraft cockpits. His is not the first avionics manufacturer to enter the cabin systems market, of course; Rockwell Collins and Thales both have acquired companies making such systems. But Rogerson may be the first to directly apply cockpit technology to the development of cabin communications systems.

Intheairnet plans to provide aircraft passengers with "smart" displays, as opposed to "dumb" displays, which offer no more than the audio and video that the in-flight entertainment (IFE) system provides. The smart display requires its own processing, which is what Rogerson Kratos developed for the cockpit displays in the Bell 412+ helicopter.

Part of the 412+ development involved stripping down the operating system software in the 412+, a process planned for Intheairnet software. By stripping away extraneous coding, the company simplifies the software, quickens the presentation of data in graphic form, and provides instantaneous boot-up. Equally important, Intheairnet now can capitalize on Rogerson Kratos’ experience in certifying systems to the RTCA DO-178B level A software standard. Most in-flight entertainment (IFE) equipment–which is non-flight critical–is certified to the lowest, level E standard. Level A is the highest standard, applied to flight-critical systems. To further enhance reliability, the company also has reduced the number of moving parts in its products.

What, exactly, does Intheairnet plan to offer? What are its building blocks for an airborne digital communications network?

The company has applied for a number of patents for system architecture, functional process, and mechanical and packaging concepts. It has two digital products that it plans to initially introduce: the Smart Communications Management System (Smart CMS) and the Smart Airnode, a touchscreen passenger interface.

The Smart CMS

Adapting from the 412+ central processing unit (CPU) by taking its motherboard, the Smart CMS essentially is a router with a number of discretes, ARINC 429 and RS-485 and ethernet inputs and outputs. This specially designed unit, with open architecture, manages the content in the aircraft, whether it is e-mail, satellite television, the Internet, broadband or cellular signals.

"For example," says Rogerson, "the direct TV signals in Europe are different from the U.S. signals." The Smart CMS identifies the signal source received and then sends it to the requested passenger.

"A firewall is incorporated to maintain total passenger security and assure that no unknown viruses or backdoors for non-registered users tap into the on-board network," says Lori Salazar, Intheairnet’s vice president of business development. "We’re looking at a version that includes a server," she adds. "But we will partner for that, to take advantage of existing and reliable technology.

"Partnering is crucial to reach the best-of-breed solutions in the new cabins. We believe the proprietary architecture of the past doesn’t support this."

The Smart Airnode

Of course not all aircraft may need Intheairnet’s Smart CMS, which has been in development since November 2000. "Boeing and Airbus aircraft already in operation may already have these processors on board their aircraft," says Rogerson. "But [the Smart CMS] would be essential for bizjets" that are to have multiple communications sources.

Meanwhile, the Smart Airnode provides processing power right to the seat, much like an implanted laptop. It features a simple, easy-to-use graphic/user interface (GUI) and high-resolution, large-format displays, comparable to those on today’s laptops. "It does all the things a state-of-the-art computer can do," says Rogerson, "plus provide television, games, interactive video and audio entertainment, in addition to on-board aircraft-critical functions."

Being a smart display, the Smart Air-node provides simple two-way communications. Rogerson says the passenger may use a touch-screen for input or keyboard contained with the unit. Of course, in addition to the call-up of various communications and entertainment sources, the passenger input would also allow for conventional reading light control and calling for a flight attendant.

The Smart Airnode also is "self-contained," according to Rogerson. "As a result, we eliminate quite of bit of waste and power cables, because we combine three boxes into one."

"We’re the Swiss Army Knife approach to avionics," adds Salazar. "Currently, aircraft have the in-seat electronics box, the display and the passenger control unit. We put that all into one box."

"It’s a Pentium III-like product," says Rogerson of the Smart Airnode. "However, we’re not locked into Intel [as a processor supplier], but we want something with a 600-plus megahertz chip."

Like the Smart CMS, the Smart Airnode offers an open architecture. It has no priority protocols, which means you can operate virtually any PC software you want.

Intheairnet currently is "working on 10 flavors of Smart Airnodes," says Salazar. These are:

  • Tray-top,

  • Table-top,

  • Shelf-top,

  • Seat-back,

  • In-arm single,

  • In-arm double,

  • Overhead retract,

  • Bulkhead,

  • Crew tablet and flight deck unit for high-speed, air-to-ground communications.

What’s on the horizon for Intheairnet? Since January, the company has been working on a third core product, a Smart TV Receiver, which connects to the satcom antenna. It is smart because it will select from the TV channels available to the aircraft and switch signals seamlessly for uninterrupted viewing.

First in Bizjets

According to Salazar, Intheairnet products are "compatible on any aircraft, but the company will focus first on business jets for certification and to gain flight time."

"These will be top-of-the-line jets such as BBJ, CBJ, the Gulfstream V and Global Express," adds Rogerson. Intheairnet plans to have a business jet version of its system FAA-certified by this year’s fourth quarter.

Commercial transport, however, presides as the ultimate market, and for that, Intheairnet has a tight schedule to remain on track with the original equipment manufacturers’ (OEM’s) schedule for digital systems development in the cabin. "It’s a challenge," says Rogerson, "but we can’t change the goal." That goal is to have an airline version of its system certified by the second quarter 2002.

Other Building Blocks

For the air transport market, Intheairnet products "must be scalable," adds the company chairman. "We see them in narrowbodies, as well as in widebodies, because we want everyone to receive e-mail.

"We know we can sell [these products] to the airlines," says Rogerson. "It involves a quick and simple power connection to the existing system"–essentially plugging into the on-board power port and to the data port.

And what products beyond the Smart CMS, Smart Airnode and Smart Receiver does Intheairnet have in store? "There will be other building blocks," affirms Rogerson, "but they will be through partnerships. We don’t want to design something ‘from scratch.’ For example, we’re not in the antenna business."

A Quite Separate Company

While it is not an avionics manufacturing giant like Honeywell or Collins, Rogerson Kratos has carved a lucrative niche in the aerospace electronics arena. It also claims several firsts: the first active-matrix liquid crystal display (AMLCD) to be certified on a commercial aircraft, first integrated instrument display system (IIDS) to be certified on a fixed-wing aircraft, and first IIDS and electronic flight instrument system (EFIS) to be certified on the a rotary wing aircraft.

Despite a kinship through a common founder, Intheairnet, says chairman Michael Rogerson, "is a totally separate company from Rogerson Kratos–and always will be.

"It has its own mission, its own engineers and business development," he adds. "[Intheairnet] has a different business model and different focus.

"We wanted to build a next-generation technology company, rather than a nuts-and-bolts company like Rogerson Kratos.

Intheairnet relationship with Rogerson Kratos is deemed a "formal partnership," explaining how Rogerson Kratos technology became applicable to Intheairnet’s initial product offerings: the tray-top and bulkhead Smart Airnodes and the Smart CMS, and Smart Receiver.

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