Undaunted by an airline recession accelerated by the Sept. 11 tragedy, the in-flight entertainment (IFE) industry is moving ahead with new or updated systems designed to please both passengers and cost-conscious carriers. Industry giants Matsushita Avionics Systems Corp. (Panasonic family) and Rockwell Collins Passenger Systems (from the acquisition of Sony Trans Com) continue to dominate the marketplace, but upstart Thales Avionics-Inflight Systems (AIS) threatens to be a tough competitor. (AIS was formerly Sextant Inflight Systems and before that, B/E Aerospace In-Flight Entertainment.) Business has slowed, naturally, since Sept. 11, but all three companies are confident in the IFE industry’s future.
"All twin-aisle [widebody] airplanes coming off production lines will have IFE–that’s not going to change," says Dave Frankenbach, director of advanced product planning for Rockwell Collins Passenger Systems. "[But] some carriers will not be retrofitting or upgrading as fast."
The major drivers in new IFE technology are the extension of in-seat audio/video on-demand (AVOD) entertainment to all seats in the aircraft and connectivity to the Internet. At the same time, the airlines are demanding lower-weight, lower-power-consumption and smaller systems to conserve precious underseat space.
To see what’s on the drawing board in new IFE technology, Avionics Magazine visited the three IFE players at their respective facilities in southern California. We start with the upstart.
Operating under its new name since December 2000, Thales AIS looks to its new i-Series to pave the way for future growth. The French company is counting on its American unit to compete head-to-head with Matsushita and Rockwell Collins in the next three to five years. Thales still sells and supports earlier IFE systems: the D-Series, launched in 1992, and the more recent "interactive" M-Series, flying on 10 Japan Air Lines and five Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747s.
The M-Series features in-seat displays throughout the aircraft and offers digital audio/video-on-demand in first and business classes, along with 20 channels of video in economy class. The older D-Series is a "distributed" system flying on some 120 aircraft, including United Airlines and Air New Zealand Boeing widebodies.
In mid-1999, Thales AIS decided to develop its new i-Series, using Internet technology that would address not only IFE, but also communications, connectivity and in-seat power. "We decided not to go backwards and support old technologies, but start from scratch," says Dan Reed, Thales AIS vice president of sales and marketing. Internet protocol (IP) is used "to communicate within the IFE system–to talk to the seat box and the BITE [built-in-test equipment]."
Another Thales AIS goal was to provide a product for an entire airline fleet. If the carrier has different aircraft types, "we could offer a commonality of product–the seat box on the single-aisle would have the same part number as on the widebody. Up to now that’s been unique," Reed claims.
Still another goal was to reduce weight and power requirements. With systems getting heavier, "we wanted to be at least 20 percent lighter than any other IFE system out there today," says Reed. The processor or personal computer (PC) needed for interactive IFE traditionally has been placed in the seat box, adding to size and weight and sometimes requiring fans for cooling. But new processors consume less power. "And if we put the processors in the display, the seat box can be smaller. It scales down to a quarter of the size of a competitor’s, weighing less than 2.5 pounds," he adds.
The Thales AIS system will be Internet ready, providing the power supply and the universal serial bus (USB) ports to link personal electronic devices (PEDs) to the Internet. It will, however, require a connectivity provider, such as Connexion by Boeing or Tenzing (see November 2001).
For improved reliability, Thales AIS touts enhancements of the i-Series’ power supply and connections to its IFE seat box. On other systems, running more and more power on tiny connectors causes reliability problems, says Reed. Thales worked closely with Airbus to define a new IFE architecture (based on ARINC 628, Part 4a), which introduces more rugged military-type connectors. It also meets other in-seat power requirements, such as electrical seat control.
With the i-Series, one cable supplies all the power needs, instead of the three cables needed in previous systems. It is the same power supply that Thales Avionics developed for cockpit systems.
Thales AIS has configured its new system for different levels of service:
The i-1000 provides broadband connectivity;
The i-2000 adds overhead video;
The i-3000 provides in-seat distributed audio/video; and
The i-4000 adds interactive/video on-demand (VOD) to the package.
Thales AIS’ competitors can provide these capabilities, Reed maintains, "but if you want more than one capability on an aircraft, that would require multiple systems. With our [i-Series system], you could have the i-4000 with VOD in first class, distributed in-seat video in business class, and overhead video in economy," he adds. "You may not need the -4000 now and can take the -3000. You can satisfy your needs today, and provide updates for tomorrow."
i-Series hardware includes a new touch-screen passenger control unit (PCU) and video display units ranging in size from 5.6 to 10.4 inches (14.2 to 26.4 cm) -diagonal. Passengers can use the digital PCU to select moving map displays, games, telephone, e-mail and IFE control. It "talks to" a server in the seat electronics box, which provides control of adjustments, such as channel selection or volume. The system also communicates with a digital server unit (DSU) located in the "head-end," usually in the aircraft’s electronics bay, where the content is loaded. Digital audio and video content, games, Web pages and airline-specific applications also are stored on the DSU.
Flight attendants access the i-Series system through a touch screen cabin management terminal. The system utilizes 100 megabits per second (Mbits/sec) Ethernet lines throughout the aircraft. Passenger laptop connectivity will provide e-mail, intranet and Internet access at speeds up to 40 to 50 Mbits/sec, Reed claims.
i-Series hardware is in production and integration and qualification testing recently began. The first flight tests of the system were scheduled for March 2002 on an Airbus A318 demonstrator aircraft. Thales AIS also announced it had received approval from Airbus to market the i-Series-1000 in the airframe manufacturer’s catalog. Japan Air Lines (JAL) has selected Thales AIS to upgrade the M-Series IFE system flying in five of its B747s with the i-1000 to provide power and broadband connectivity for premium class passengers. The company has two additional contracts with European carriers; those installations are scheduled to begin in December of this year.
Thales sees itself evolving from a distant No. 3 position into a strong player in the market in the next three to five years. With its new product and company infrastructure in place, it envisions moving ahead of one of its more established rivals. Before Sept. 11, it had planned to move from its current 100,000-square-foot (9,290-square-meter) facility in Irvine, Calif., which houses 400 full-time employees, into a larger facility. The unit also has employees in Toulouse and Singapore, plus a worldwide service organization.
Although it remains No. 1 in the IFE industry, Matsushita is not taking its top ranking for granted. "The competition never sleeps," says Paul Margis, Matsushita’s senior vice president and chief technical officer. "And while we’re doing reasonably well this year, we’re not sitting on our hands."
The Bothell, Wash.-based unit of the Matsushita Electric conglomerate has led the IFE widebody market since its 2000E interactive in-seat video system was introduced in 1995. Customers are still ordering the system. And Matsushita claims it is "nip and tuck" with Collins in the narrowbody competition.
Matsushita employs about 1,500 persons worldwide, including service technicians. It has 450 employees at its Lake Forest, Calif., facility, where product development and airline customization take place, and about the same number in Bothel. All of its line replaceable units (LRUs) are produced in Japan.
"There was a sharp reaction, a drop off, after Sept. 11, when the airlines clamped down quickly," says Margis. "Since then, coming out of 2001 was not bad.
"It didn’t make sense for airlines to actually cancel new aircraft deliveries," he adds. However, they " are looking at the opportunity to defer deliveries. We expect 2002 to be a little slower than last year."
Matsushita is taking a two-pronged approach to the future, upgrading its current widebody IFE system, while developing a new product, the eFX. Initially targeted for the single-aisle market, eFX hardware was evaluated on a Connexion by Boeing test aircraft. Matsushita is proceeding with eFX as a stand-alone platform, designed to provide both entertainment and connectivity, "hooking up" with any Internet service provider’s (ISP’s) system.
The launch customer for the eFX system, announced last November, is International Lease Finance Corp. (ILFC), which has the largest number of new Boeing and Airbus aircraft orders. ILFC selected Matsushita as its base-line, Airbus single-aisle IFE supplier for A318, A319, A320, and A321 aircraft and as an option for its Boeing 737NG (next generation) aircraft.
Matsushita says its eFX system is modular, offering an add-on approach, similar to Thales AIS’ widebody i-Series. eFX will be offered in four levels:
Bronze, an entry-level solution with in-seat connectivity and overhead video;
Silver, adding broadcast and interactive audio entertainment;
Gold, offering in-seat video and premium class VOD; and
Platinum, offering high-speed broadband connectivity plus the latest in entertainment.
At the same time, Matsushita continues to upgrade its flagship System 3000, the widebody leader that began flying on Singapore Airlines in early 2001. At latest count, some 45 System 3000 shipsets have been installed, and airlines have ordered another 300.
VOD capability can be added to System 3000 through a new seat box, server and coding changes. Matsushita designates this System 3000E. The company is upgrading the system further with the provision of laptop connectivity via an Ethernet connection at the head-end that will support both broadband and narrowband rates. Called System 3000i, this upgrade replaces the seatbox and adds an Ethernet connection and remote jack for the laptop connection. It uses the same set of harnesses and the same sized core box but has a new part number.
If the customer provides the old System 3000 box, "we give them a brand new one or upgrade theirs," says Margis. "Everything is the same size, but it has Internet connectivity."
Like Thales, Matsushita does not plan to compete with Internet service providers, but will work in conjunction with them. The 3000 system was proven on Connexion One earlier this year, and will be used as the pipeline for Varig Airlines’ e-mail connectivity, using Tenzing’s system.
Matsushita insists its systems will be fully Internet- and broadband-enabled when broadband comes on line. Margis anticipates that ISPs will use IFE systems for most of their passenger interface.
Proposing its 3000i system to United Airlines, Matsushita has found the U.S. market for IFE systems to be cost-sensitive. "Most of our systems in the past focused on the high-end market," Margis explains. "America’s market is different–more cost-sensitive. Looking at the U.S. market, you ask, how do I make a system that can sell at a reasonable price and still serve premium customers?"
With cost management in mind, Matsushita also has developed a lower-cost alternative to 3000i, with fewer capabilities. Its "Inflight Communicator" on-board messaging platform provides passengers with in-seat e-mail, faxes and seat-to-seat messaging. Initially the system will support only the sending of messages from the air, adding the ability to receive messages later. The air-to-ground messaging can work with current narrowband and future broadband satellite solutions. Matsushita also has teamed with Reuters to offer passengers what it calls "real time" news and information, uploaded to the aircraft on an hourly basis and integrated into its System 3000.
Looking to the future, Matsushita is focusing on features, such as interactive video, processing speed, system maintainability and underseat electronics packaging. It is exploring placing seat boxes under the floor, with one box driving 12 seat units, instead of three or four. Matsushita plans to trial this system with Air Canada. "It’s flat–you don’t even see bumps," says Margis, describing the new system. "The boxes run cooler and are more efficient."
Rockwell Collins Passenger Systems has grown over the last five years to become a strong No. 2 in the IFE industry, with more than 40 percent of the market. It, too, has experienced a downturn in business since Sept. 11. "We were heading into a down cycle before Sept. 11," explains Dave Frankenbach, director of advanced product planning for Passenger Systems. "Sept. 11 kick-started it. We have had some cutbacks."
Collins says some planned head-count reductions have resulted from the integration of Trans Com into the company. It recently moved its personnel from Irvine, Calif., to a larger 250,000-square-foot, Pomona, Calif., facility–the result of another Collins acquisition, of Hughes Avicom.
"We are finishing up the consolidation. Most of people were already here," says Frankenbach. In addition to the 750 employees in Pomona, another 800 assembly and production workers are located in Mexicali, Mexico.
Collins is expecting its new widebody eTES system to be its flagship product of the future, providing Internet connectivity and expanding AVOD aircraft-wide. eTES combines the attributes of Collins’ TES (Total Entertainment System) with former rival Sony’s Microsoft Windows software platform.
More than 400 TES systems have been ordered and 280 installed on Airbus and Boeing widebodies. Collins recently completed retrofitting its TES AVOD on three Japan Airlines B747-400s as part of a 24-aircraft upgrade program.
TES’ performance is limited by bandwidth and speed; however, Collins claims that eTES will advance the system, providing AVOD and laptop connectivity at broadband speeds. Using cable TV modem technology developed for homes and offices, the company claims it can deliver more content choices faster than any other IFE system and with the bandwidth (for data transfer) to support the seat capacity of any twin-aisle aircraft–including the Airbus 380–flying or on the drawing boards. The data network bandwidth ranges from 100 Mbits/sec to 1.6 gigabits per second (Gbits/sec) to the seats, and from 36 to 288 Mbits/sec from the seats.
QAM on eTES
Collins maintains that eTES is the first to adopt standard QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) digital signal modulation–also employed by the cable industry. eTES now extends this broadband capability over ARINC 628, Part 4a, standard wiring.
With eTES’ Windows-based technology, the server runs Microsoft NT and the Internet Information Server (IIS) application. Windows CE provides Internet Explorer for Internet and intranet navigation.
Collins claims its eTES video seat box weighs less, consumes less power and is nearly 30 percent smaller than previous units. It provides USB and Ethernet laptop ports for access to e-mail and Internet content. (Internet data can be displayed either on the IFE display or on the laptop or PED.)
Like its competitors, Collins is "not an ISP provider," insists Dan Bergen, director of product marketing. The airline chooses whatever ISP best meets its needs. We provide the connection port."
The eTES system offers the carrier options. It can select from overhead video, in-seat or e-mail and may decide to provide AVOD in first class and distributed overhead video in economy class. Other touted features are a 20 percent reduction in weight and simplified operation for cabin crew and maintenance personnel.
Collins has two international airlines as launch customers for the new system, Bergen says, although he declines to identify the customers. eTES is in the final implementation stage, with deliveries set to begin this summer and with full-scale operation starting in early 2003. Although eTES was designed primarily for widebody aircraft, "we have the capability to take this technology into single-aisle aircraft if there is the demand," says Bergen
Rockwell Collins gained a strong position in the single-aisle IFE market by acquiring Sony Trans Com’s market-leading "Paves" (programmable audio video entertainment system) system as a result of the July 2000 takeover.