Most business sectors within avionics typically see one or two major technology and/or customer demand trends in any given year. But with as many as three or four distinct trends and developments this year within the $1.5 billion worldwide inflight entertainment (IFE) sector, it is all that executives can do to stay buckled in.
Topping the list is the recent in-service introduction of the Airbus A380, which is as noteworthy for its expansive IFE backbone system as for its physical dimensions.
"It is the industry’s first one-gigabit backbone system, and will deliver something on the order of 5 Mbit/s of data to the seat," said Neil James, director of corporate sales and marketing for Panasonic Avionics Corp., Lake Forest, Calif. "That amount of bandwidth will provide not only high-quality video but concurrent capabilities like picture-in-picture, live text news and text messaging."
A380 launch customer Singapore Airlines selected Panasonic as the IFE vendor for its 15 firm orders and eight options. In its first several months of operation, the Panasonic eX2 system "has been flying more reliably than any other system we’ve ever fielded," said James, who credits the simplified architecture of eX2 compared to Panasonic’s previous-generation IFE system.
"When we went to eX2, we fundamentally changed the architecture from a software, network and LRU perspective to one that emphasized built-in redundancy of boards and power supplies," he said. "It is now to the point where you can have up to 10 pretty significant failures in a zone distribution area before you affect a seat-group of passengers."
Competing against the eX2 on new widebodies is Thales’ advanced TopSeries i5000 IFE system, which has been selected by most of the carriers ordering IFE for their Boeing 787 Dreamliners.
By exploiting the expanded bandwidth of new IFE systems like those on the A380 and B787, vendors are able to move beyond traditional audio, video, maps and games to features like video on demand and productivity tools.
One of the more interesting features of Panasonic’s A380 system, for example, is a Microsoft Office-compliant software program available through the IFE system that lets passengers create and edit Office documents without the need for a laptop computer. Documents are loaded into the system directly from a passenger’s USB flash drive, writing is done on a portable keyboard, and the document is saved back to the flash drive.
Helping passengers do away with the laptop altogether is part of the second major trend driving IFE, namely, giving passengers the ability to use their own personal media devices, like iPods and Blackberries, while onboard the airplane.
Many industry observers see this as a blending of new consumer electronics technologies and customer expectations based on how they use entertainment devices on the ground.
One of the best examples of an airline trying to address customer expectations of IFE capabilities is Singapore Airlines. In mid-May, the airline launched an all-business class route from Singapore to Newark, N.J., on an Airbus A340-500, where all 100 seats include a docking station for Apple’s iPod. Panasonic also provides the IFE system for that service, and the company worked closely with Apple to ensure compatibility between their systems.
"The hardware is the same as for any other capability you’d like to put at the seat; the real challenge is in the software integration," said James. "The latest generation of iPods require a handshake or authentication between the device and our software or else the iPod won’t display video."
The importance of the iPod to the IFE industry can’t be underestimated, so much so that companies like Rockwell Collins have signed "made for iPod" agreements with Apple so that corporate jet operators, in particular, know that authentication won’t be an issue when they dock their iPods into the airplane IFE system. In 2007, Rockwell Collins introduced two iPod integration systems for business jet operators –– the iPod Solo Station and the iPod Quad Station –– which allow for the use of iPod systems while airborne.
In April, Thales said it is "executing a comprehensive strategy" to interface iPod to its TopSeries IFE system. The seven-part strategy introduces different ways to integrate personal electronic devices; already, the IFE system provides power to handheld devices and allows for viewing movies stored in a device on the seatback display. Eventually, Thales anticipates passengers will be able to share content between the IFE system and their personal devices.
"It is a natural evolution to bring personal electronic devices and IFE systems together," said Alan Pellegrini, vice president and general manager of Thales’ IFE business. "Our system’s Internet-based network and connectivity solutions will eventually allow passengers to do in the air what they now do on the ground."
Some airlines have been quick to advertise these new capabilities as a way to differentiate themselves from airlines that don’t yet have IFE systems with the ability to play customer-provided content. Many of the "have-nots" are responding with retrofit plans to bring their own systems up to the latest standards.
That extends from installation of server-based systems that reduce the number of distinct boxes required to provide content, to new seat-back displays that have wider viewing angles and screens with 16:9 aspect ratios (instead of the traditional 4:3) that more closely approximate today’s widescreen televisions, as well as the wiring necessary to provide a good picture.
"What everybody wants is more data and more choices," said David Gray, president of Flight Display Systems, an Alpharetta, Ga.-based company that specializes in IFE retrofits for regional and corporate aircraft. "On a corporate level everybody wants high definition television. They’re used to having it at home and if they can have it onboard they want it and are willing to pay for it."
That’s especially true when data for high-definition (HD) televisions and Blackberries is transmitted through the more affordable Iridium satellite network instead of Inmarsat satcom, for example.
This year, Flight Display Systems introduced its "Fly HD" product, which the company calls the world’s first in-flight HD video system. Fly HD includes an 8-port HD video switching amplifier, which interfaces with the DVD or BluRay player and monitor. The amplifier will allow multiple HD monitors to display a HD Multimedia Interface signal.
That leads to a third major trend in IFE –– onboard connectivity. Unlike the first wave of connectivity efforts in aviation, led primarily by Connexion by Boeing, this latest wave is targeted not at high-speed communications for laptop users, but at basic Internet connections for Blackberries and cellular telephones.
"It’s Round Two for connectivity issues in the industry," said Andrew Mohr, director of cabin systems marketing for Rockwell Collins. "Connexion by Boeing was targeted at people using laptops for e-mail and Web surfing, but the business case didn’t make it.
"Round Two is being facilitated by mobile phone access and Blackberries. There are more people carrying Blackberries than laptops, and the bandwidth need is less. The Blackberry is the killer app."
Five U.S. airlines were testing e-mail and instant messaging services: American Airlines, Alaska Airways, JetBlue, Virgin America, Southwest and Continental. However, actual cellular voice calls in this country are unlikely any time soon, according to industry observers.
"In the U.S., the FAA has a policy directive in place that says cell phones can’t be used in the air for voice calls," said Richard Owen, executive director of the World Airline Entertainment Association, McLean, Va., which represents airlines and equipment vendors. "But most airlines support having data access on the phone."
The issue of voice calls is less troublesome to non-U.S. carriers, and airlines like Emirates Airways, Turkish Airways, Air France and Qantas are moving ahead with implementations using systems from companies like OnAir (a joint venture of SITA and Airbus), AeroMobile (a joint venture of ARINC and Telenor) and U.S.-based Aircell.
This latest wave of connectivity may even help airlines curb their operating costs, particularly those related to fuel.
"In the future airlines could use Internet connectivity to deliver content directly to the seatback IFE device without having to wire the system," said Owen. "That would reduce weight, improve reliability and permit the refreshing of content without having to change out DVDs. So it could not only deliver service to the customer but also efficiency behind the scenes to the operators."
Transmitting all that data to the airplane comes with its own unique challenges, however, particularly for business jets that are equipped for both Inmarsat and Iridium communications.
"There are all sorts of issues with satcom and Iridium because they are two different systems that interfere with each other," said Gabi Hasko, program manager at Quebec-based Aerospace Concepts, which manages interior completions for widebody business jets. "A lot of operators want both as backup, but on smaller business jets the antennas are so close that they override each other."
Mohr calls the need to get additional bandwidth onto smaller antennas the "number one technical gap where real technical progress is needed to reduce the bottleneck."
IFE providers face a number of technical and economic challenges going forward, including cost of ownership and juggling passenger expectations.
"The greatest challenge we face is time to market, and in trying to work with our airline clients and be anticipatory of consumer trends," James said.
"Passenger experiences on an aircraft are based on what they see on the ground (in the consumer electronics market). We want to push the envelope as much as we can in terms of functionality in order to give airlines the ability to create a competitive advantage."
A second challenge is determining how higher operating costs due to fuel prices will affect IFE installation, because upgrades and the retrofit market tend to get placed under the scalpel when times are tough.
But even the drive toward airline consolidation and the idling of planes due to fuel considerations can provide some IFE opportunities.
"As airlines shuffle their fleets they’ll look at alternate ways of providing IFE, including hand-held systems that are rented or provided to passengers, which will preclude the need to invest in embedded IFE systems," said Owen.
"In the next few months, you’ll see some revisions of the numbers that will show some shifting in the U.S. in the area of IFE purchases and retrofit, but I can’t say yet how those numbers might shift," Owen said.
Added Mohr: "Every airline wants to differentiate their brands, but it’s always been about doing it as economically as possible because it’s not just acquisition costs but total life cycle cost. With digital technology, the complexity that the industry has had to digest is significant. That’s become even more accentuated with airlines struggling to deliver value to offset the cost of the fuel crisis.
"In business aviation, the challenge is navigating all the dynamics of digital media, Blu-ray DVD, high-definition television and portable devices into some sensible solution that is exciting for customers and can be brought to market."
EMS Satcom www.emssatcom.com
Flight Display Systems www.flightdisplay.com
NAT Seattle www.natseattle.com
Northern Airborne Technology Ltd. www.northernairborne.com
Panasonic Avionics Corp. www.mascorp.com
Rockwell Collins www.rockwellcollins.com
Row 44 www.row44.com
Sagem Avionics. www.sagemavionics.com
Sennheiser Electronic Corp. www.sennheiser.com
Starling Advanced Communication www.starling-com.com
TEAC Aerospace www.teac-aerospace.com
Tecom Industries www.tecom-ind.com
Teledyne Controls www.teledyne-controls.com
Thales Group www.thalesgroup.com