ATM Modernization, Business & GA, Commercial

A380: Jumbo Step for In-Flight Entertainment

By George Marsh | March 1, 2006
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Anyone plotting to foil the commercial launch of the Airbus A380 could hardly do worse than ensure it gets equipped with a dysfunctional in-flight entertainment (IFE) system. Failure to keep 500-plus passengers content and entertained on long-haul flights could quickly create sentiment against the IFE, the aircraft and the operating airline.

But that's not likely to happen. For this massive aircraft the giants of the IFE business are offering the pinnacle of their IFE capability in fully engineered and tested form. So far only two systems, developed by Thales and Panasonic Avionics Corp. (formerly Matsushita Avionic Systems), have been approved by Airbus for the A380. While a third IFE competitor, Rockwell Collins, has not yet been chosen for the aircraft, it may be a future contender.

Air France and Malaysian Airlines have selected Thales' Top Series i-5000. The former will equip its 10 A380s (plus four options), while the latter will install the i-5000 on the six aircraft it has on order. Meanwhile, Panasonic Avionics' eX2 system is designated for the 45 A380s to be operated by Emirates, as well as the 20 A340s that the Middle Eastern airline has ordered. Both systems bring the latest broadband-enabled entertainment and information offerings to every passenger in the A380--up to 550 seats initially, but eventually as many as 700 or 800.

Both systems will feature the high-speed fiber optic Ethernet backbone dictated by Airbus as a means to save wiring and weight, along with highly distributed architectures and fully digital operation. Both will use powerful head-end servers to provide separate bit streams to every seat, thus delivering the ultimate objective of passenger entertainment: audio and video on demand (AVOD). The head-end servers house all the IFE content, as well as the software programs that run the applications. "Seat boxes" distribute the content to a small group of passenger displays. Seat-back installations, known as video display units (VDUs), process bit streams at the local level.

Passengers will be able, not only to select what content they want, when they want it, but also to send and receive short message service (SMS) and e-mail, browse the Internet, access corporate intranets, and play games and shop on-line, all from their seat-back units. Should they wish to use their own laptops or other personal electronic devices (PEDs), in-seat power and connectivity will enable them to do so. Both IFE systems for the A380 will, to some extent, allow passengers to tailor their experience to their personal preferences at the beginning of a flight. Both will use high-bandwidth terrestrial and satellite communication systems to support off-aircraft communications.

Thales' TopSeries i-5000 system is an evolution of the company's previous flagship system for widebodies, the i-4000. This IFE system, which will be the first to fly on an A380, is installed on the second aircraft off the line, the MSN002.

Passengers naturally will focus first on the viewing screens. Seat-back displays range in size from 8.4 inches to an impressive 22 inches, deployed according to the seating class. Each display is connected to the main Ethernet trunk via a local wired Ethernet connection, moving data at a 1-Gbit/s rate throughout the network.

Smart Displays

Local processing occurs within the "smart" displays themselves, leaving little more than power supplies and switches in the seat-back units. According to Dan Reed, vice president of product strategy, Thales has used circuitry inspired by the TV set-top box industry because it is highly integrated and therefore both compact and efficient in its use of power. At its heart are IBM PowerPC processors. Alternative architectures and processors might have required several times more power, Reed suggests, raising issues of thermal management--especially if 500 to 800 passengers are using the equipment simultaneously.

The display circuitry decodes incoming data, converting it from digits to meaningful content, to provide the requested audio and video entertainment. Despite the system's formidable capability and processing, the equipment serving each small group of seats weighs 40 percent less than the previous-generation equivalent and requires 30 percent less electrical power, Thales says. Part of the reason is that each i-5000 seat-box serves four seats versus three seats in the i-4000 generation.

Thales has worked with IBM to head off any possible obsolescence issues. Consistent with Thales' requirement to offer a five-year warranty, future upgrades have been anticipated in the initial design and enough inventory is kept to meet the need for spares.

A range of user interfaces will be available for airlines to choose from. These include touchscreens, built-in handsets, portable handsets connected via a USB port, and, in due course, a laser-projected keyboard. All of the options will enable users to read and send e-mail and access the Internet. Alternatively, passengers can plug in their laptops or other PEDs to do so.

High Bandwidth

The "whatever you want, whenever you want it" capability that passengers will expect in the air, as well as on the ground, requires high bandwidth in order to provide an audio/video stream to each passenger seat. Fortunately, the scalability of the predecessor i-4000 platform made it not too difficult for Thales to substitute the necessary 1-Gbit/s fiber optic Ethernet backbone for the earlier 100-Mbit/s, copper-based 100BaseT Ethernet. This, combined with faster subnetworks and new area distribution boxes, has made the step up to i-5000 a significant advance.

High speed is needed to transfer large amounts of digital data from powerful head-end servers to the seats. According to Brad Foreman, vice president and general manager of Thales' IFE Division, a typical A380 operator or customer may have more than 6 terabytes (Tbytes) of head-end server storage to support the delivery of the required number of content channels. This capacity will be provided by a number of networked head-end servers. (Each terabyte represents about 1,000 Gbytes, or 1 trillion bytes.)

The present i-5000 head-end server has a capacity of 600 Gbytes, double that of its i-4000 predecessor for the same size, so the total number of units required remains manageable. Moreover, within a year, servers of 1-Tbyte capacity are likely to become available. An interesting aside is that, at this level of capability, Thales sees significant potential convergence between its IFE and military processors. The company aims to adapt its organizational structure to enable greater collaboration between the two areas.

Thales has promised far greater availability from its i-5000 than the woeful levels that gave earlier IFE generations--from all manufacturers--a bad name. The system builds in solid state reliability. Equally important, Thales has conducted much more testing of development and preproduction systems prior to service entry than was possible with earlier systems. Modular design and built-in diagnostics, moreover, enable faults to be isolated quickly to the unit level, allowing rapid replacement of faulty units. And engineers at centers on the ground will be able to control and test the onboard system remotely, via the i-5000 network and the Internet Protocol (IP).

Wireless Future

A future benefit of the TopSeries family is that it can go wireless when required, in order to reduce weight, complexity and maintenance. Slots are available in the seat-back units for wireless IEEE 802.11 cards in the PCMCIA format. Though not an imminent prospect for the A380, wireless capability could quickly interest operators of regional jets. Thales' demonstration last year of its ability to support up to 260 video streams wirelessly was undoubtedly well noted.

Implementation of the i-5000, which has been under development for almost five years, is proceeding satisfactorily. In late 2004 Thales began shipping equipment to the German branch of Airbus for installation in A380 MSN002 in Hamburg. This followed earlier completion of a major IFE test laboratory at Thales' facility in Irvine, Calif. Extensive late-stage development and system testing took place at this center, including on a full 550-seat mockup. In November Thales successfully demonstrated its IFE at an Airbus test laboratory in Hamburg. Following a searching line units acceptance review, Airbus approved the system, finally clearing the way for its use on the A380. Boeing also has cleared the i-5000, and both airframers have approved TopSeries for single-aisle and twin-aisle aircraft.

Air France Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jean Cyril Spinetta last year said that the airline will use the Thales IFE system first on A380s operating from France to Montreal and New York, and subsequently equip others flying to Beijing and Tokyo. Thales also announced last year that it will team with Malaysian Airlines to establish an A380 IFE repair and support facility in Subang, Malaysia.

Positively Panasonic

Early A380 customer, Emirates Airlines, is in no doubt as to the essential nature of IFE for long-haul widebodies. Chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al-Maktoum has commented: "Our new Airbus fleet will enable us to fly more passengers longer distances nonstop. This brings with it the responsibility to supply the very best in entertainment, information and communication during their journey."

The airline already was familiar with the Matsushita MAS 3000i system installed on its A340-500s. This IFE offers more than 500 entertainment channels and communication functions, including telephone, SMS and e-mail. So Emirates was interested when Panasonic Avionics launched a next-generation, all-digital IFE system--the eFX. Though this was first optimized for narrowbody aircraft, a variant, the eX2, was engineered with widebodies in mind. Emirates selected the eX2 for the 45 A380s and other Airbus widebodies it has ordered.

In developing eFX technology, Panasonic Avionics engineers started from scratch. They wanted a system that would be all digital, IP-based, fast enough to support streaming video applications, scalable across most aircraft sizes, easy to use, adaptable and designed with the latest entertainment and communications features. They therefore gave it a 1-Gbit/s Ethernet backbone, high-capacity servers, powerful processing distributed to the seats, and intuitive user interfaces. The resulting system is modular and adaptable.

Dave Bruner, a company spokesman, emphasizes the advantages of the eX2 architecture. System weight is around one-third less and power requirements are up to 40 percent less than for an equivalent, current-generation system, he contends.

But the biggest savings is in volume. "By distributing the processing to the seats," says Bruner, "we have avoided the familiar bulky head-end [server] with its multiple LRUs [line replaceable units]. The space saving that has resulted is remarkable."

"We also have a different head-end philosophy to our competitor," Bruner adds. "Instead of having several networked servers, we basically use a very powerful single server, although that's backed up by a similar unit on hot standby. These servers are of enterprise class [i.e., high-level units used to support business operations] and are both reliable and powerful."

Another major advantage, asserts Bruner, is that the network's 1-Gbit/s data rate "is taken right through to the seat, where we have a fiber optic Ethernet connection, and does not apply just to the Ethernet backbone." This gives each passenger "access to bandwidth adequate to support highly sophisticated entertainment."

Other features include SMS/e-mail plus interactive maps, destination information, and on-line gaming and shopping. The system also allows passengers to customize the IFE at each seat. By using a smart card or other secure digital device, travelers will be able to set up their preferences vis-à­¶is entertainment selections, games, SMS and e-mail settings, moving map options, destination information, meal choices and audio play lists, and then download them into the system before boarding the aircraft. Frequent flyers, in particular, may welcome this ability to "tune" the system even before setting foot on the aircraft.

Like the Thales offering, Panasonic's system supports maintenance through interactive diagnostics accessible on-line. The eX2 also provides the cabin crew with a range of system management features.

Panasonic's Lake Forest, Calif., center led the development effort. Regional centers in Dallas; Singapore; London; Toulouse, France; Tokyo; and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, along with field service representatives at other centers around the world, will provide customer support irrespective of geography. Panasonic Avionics claims that it now has contracted four A380 customers, as well as Emirates, although the identities of the four have yet to be announced. Boeing also has approved the eX2 suite for the B777.

Eye to the Future

Both the Thales and Panasonic systems are engineered for growth. Modular architectures allow new technologies and equipment to be introduced on a plug-and-play basis, while processing power and data storage capacity can be upgraded, as evolving technology permits. Modularity extends to the systems' software, as well, so new algorithms and capabilities can be incorporated. Both systems will be a content provider's dream (or nightmare, depending on the point of view), because their hunger for new creative material will be insatiable.

One question, however, concerns the availability of sufficiently broad data "pipes" to serve the needs of off-aircraft communications, when the airplane is out of reach of terrestrial networks. Happily, viable broadband satcom systems are emerging. Inmarsat, which already has terminals on a large proportion of the world's commercial airline and general aviation fleets, is implementing its fourth satellite generation, which will support a bandwidth for each communications channel of almost half a Mbit/s basic, or without compression and doubling of channels. More data could be transmitted at this rate if content is compressed. This service should become available to aviation, starting late this year and is being branded Swift Broadband. Meanwhile, Connexion by Boeing continues to promote its own broadband solution, said to be able to provide 5-Mbit/s capability, at least on the satellite-to-aircraft downlink. Connexion uses leased payload capacity on existing satellites, as does LiveTV, in bringing multiple TV channels to aircraft.

Further into the future, really broad data pipes could raise questions about the need for the multiple, separate air-ground data links that are the predominant model today. Conceivably, all data--whether destined for passengers, the flight crew or the cabin crew--could be conveyed on the same ultra-broad data link, assuming that suitable partitioning arrangements and integrity protection would be in place for priority data.

Content would be separated into the necessary streams, such as airline operational communications, controller-to-pilot communications and passenger entertainment. By far the largest stream is likely to be that of IFE. Such data convergence probably would be paralleled by the development of additional applications for the IFE equipment. Having massive networked processing capability on hand whenever passengers are not on the aircraft will raise opportunities for airline operational departments to use that capacity for other tasks, perhaps related to commercial, maintenance, navigational, meteorological or other requirements.

But for now, the primary focus remains superior IFE for 500 or more passengers on the A380. As Paul Margis, chief technical officer and president of Panasonic Avionics, explains: "By researching passenger habits and consumer trends worldwide, we have created a system that allows the airline to provide a truly personalized experience, including many features that a passenger already possesses in his or her daily life."

Although the third IFE giant, Rockwell Collins, has so far not been selected for the A380, it continues to develop its eTES IFE series and may be a future contender. If Collins decides to enter the fray, it will do so when it is good and ready, having been stung by criticisms that previous eTES generations were insufficiently mature at launch. A late entry might make sense strategically since a number of declared and potential A380 customers could not expect aircraft deliveries for several years, and much can happen in IFE development during that time. Thai Airlines, for one, has declared itself content to delay decisions on IFE and other cabin features for its A380s until they become necessary for production scheduling purposes. Since broadband, "on-demand" IFE systems are costly--media reports have quoted some $8 million for a typical full A380 aircraft set--Thai's decision could be a wise one.

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