Seatback IFE forges ahead
Connectivity and personal entertainment and communication devices have not killed off seatback in-flight entertainment and communications systems, as some had predicted. Emma Kelly looks at how IFEC manufacturers are planning for the future.
Time does not stand still in the world of in-flight entertainment and communications (IFEC), with equipment manufacturers and service providers constantly working to keep pace with developments on the ground.
With the advent of personal entertainment and communication devices, many warned that traditional seatback IFE systems would become a thing of the past, but hardware manufacturers are fighting back and have embraced connectivity, the Android operating system and have put their systems on a diet to ensure they have a future place in the industry.
A number of carriers are embracing portable consumer devices, with Jetstar, for example, conducting an in-flight trial of Apple’s iPad – and still reportedly working to implement that programme fleet-wide – and British Airways testing the same device in its first class cabins to complement installed IFE systems. American Airlines, meanwhile, will offer the Samsung Galaxy Tab in its premium cabins on Boeing 767-200 and -300 transcontinental flights and European and South American services flown by 767-300s from later this year.
But this doesn’t mean installed seatback systems are dead and buried; far from it. Those legacy carriers testing out portable devices often do so in their premium cabins, as a supplement to seatback IFE, while low-cost operators, for example, generally do not have seatback IFE anyway. The situation is no different from the 1990s when a number of innovative carriers offered passengers consumer DVD devices to supplement the still-unreliable interactive seatback IFE systems which were entering service.
Leading seatback system manufacturers Panasonic and Thales clearly do not believe their days are numbered, as they are developing their latest products based on the Android operating system.
Panasonic, for example, is developing the eX3 as the latest member of its XSeries. The manufacturer describes the eX3 as “a revolution in passenger entertainment”. It will support connectivity, high definition, 3D, personalisation and high-end video games, says the manufacturer.
The eX3 is being designed with broadband connectivity in mind, with the system able to support GSM and smart phones, laptops and tablet computers, allowing passengers to stay connected through live television, news and social media.
Based on Google’s Android operating system, the eX3 will have a highly-reliable, self-managing software architecture that is designed for connected, think-client networks and low-power, highly interactive devices, says Panasonic. As it is Android-based, operators will have access to an extensive development community and thousands of off-the-shelf and custom-branded applications.
Increased system reliability is promised through the use of the Android operating system, solid-state disc drives, fewer components than in earlier XSeries systems, improved BITE accuracy and real-time system monitoring through connectivity. Panasonic says the design of the system will be “elegant”, based on “uncompromising industrial design that features seamless interior integration, a home-theatre environment, HD [high-definition] and 3D displays, capacitive touch, proximity sensors, incredible viewing angles, next-generation processors, in-seat cameras and more”.
Panasonic is also promising “significant weight reduction” and reduced power use compared with earlier generation systems. Panasonic is also offering in-flight broadband connectivity, mobile phone services and live television through its Global Communications Suite comprising the Ku-band eXConnect connectivity service and eXphone mobile phone service, in conjunction with AeroMobile and eXTV.
EXConnect was launched by Lufthansa in November 2010, after years of development by Panasonic to fill the gap left by Boeing’s defunct Connexion service. The system operates via Intelsat satellites, delivering internet and e-mail access to passengers.
Turkish Airlines, SAS and Cathay Pacific Airways are also signed up for eXConnect. Gulf Air became the latest customer when at this year’s Paris Air Show in June it announced it had selected Panasonic’s Global Communications Suite for its entire fleet. Installations were set to start in September and are likely to take two years, Panasonic says.
Like Panasonic, Thales is also constantly upgrading its seatback systems. Thales’ latest TopSeries system is the AVANT which the manufacturer describes as “a revolutionary system” that combines the strengths of earlier-generation systems with advanced technologies, including HD video, solid-state hard drives and faster processors.
AVANT is based on the Android operating system and incorporates Thales’ Touch Passenger Media Unit (PMU), which is a menu-driven 3.8-inch touch-screen device. The Touch PMU allows passengers to multi-task, just as they do on the ground, says Thales. Thales is opening an App Portal to allow airlines to access the growing number of Android-based applications.
AVANT is based on a seat-centric design, making it lighter and smaller than earlier systems, says the manufacturer. Thales is aiming for a target weight and power reduction of 30 percent compared with older TopSeries systems. No seat electronics box is required.
The system is fully laptop-power capable and includes new solid-state entertainment servers at the head-end providing redundancy with no single point of failure. Each server supports HD video and offers up to 2TB capacity, with streaming video to 150 passengers, while the digital servers can act as communications servers for the TopConnect system.
No passenger control units or peripheral cables are required, and the modular seat display construction accommodates personal electronic devices, credit card readers and integrated passenger services. The system also offers capacitive touch and multi-screen navigation, and provides up to 256GB of local content storage for entertainment programmes.
The system will be available in two configurations – a smart video-display unit (SVDU) with a remote smart personal integrated module (SmartPIM), or an SVDU with integrated SmartPIM and credit card reader. The AVANT will feature widescreen, high-definition monitors available in 9, 11 and 12-inch versions.
Thales confirmed earlier this year that an undisclosed Airbus A350 XWB customer has selected AVANT for its aircraft, and that the IFE manufacturer is working to offer the system on all Airbus platforms. The launch order is “very significant in size”, says Thales, adding that the customer may be revealed in September at the annual Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) show.
“Beyond this, many airlines are taking interest in our new systems,” says Thales. AVANT is currently in the preliminary design review stage, with OEM qualification expected in late 2012, says the manufacturer. Flight tests and deliveries will begin in 2013, it adds.
Thales’ TopConnect in-flight connectivity solution is offered through the Inmarsat l-band SwiftBroadband, but the manufacturer is aiming towards a Ka-band TopConnect solution through Inmarsat’s Global Xpress, which will be available through the new Inmarsat-5 satellites from 2014. Global Xpress will initially be offered to the maritime, energy and government sectors, with speeds of up to 50Mb/sec, followed by aeronautical users. Thales’ Ka-band connectivity will be offerable for line-fit on the A350 XWB.
“Based on the commitments from the satellite operators and our service partners, we know that Ka-band offers the airline community answers to the fundamental challenges of coverage, bandwidth and cost that have long prevented the deployment of successful and sustainable in-flight connectivity services. Ka-band will be a game-changer and is part of Thales’ growth strategy in cloud-based applications and technology development,” says Alan Pellegrini, managing director for Thales IFE.
Thales expects to demonstrate a number of new developments at the APEX show in Seattle, including the AVANT architecture running new Android applications on the TouchPMU; TopSeries overhead systems for single-aisle aircraft; seat integration capabilities in partnership with BE Aerospace, Recaro, Weber and Contour; TopConnect systems for ground and air connectivity; a wireless IFE solution; and a theatre area for demonstrations on future applications, which the manufacturer describes as “very cool”.
A new breed of lighter and “seat-centric” IFEC systems is giving Panasonic and Thales another level of competition. Lumexis, for example, entered the installed IFE system market in late 2010, when launch customer Flydubai put the Fibre-to-the-Screen (FTTS) system into service on its new Boeing 737-800s, integrated with Recaro seats.
FTTS was developed to meet the low-weight, low-cost, high-reliability requirements of airlines. The system is fully fibre-optic, with light pulses in optical fibres carrying audio and video data streams from the server to the display screens. It is 50 percent lighter than legacy IFE systems that use copper wiring and require large and heavy electronic seat boxes, says Lumexis. Like legacy systems, the FTTS supports movies, video programming, audio, games, a moving map, destination information, news and shopping.
By mid-August, Flydubai had 12 Boeing 737-800s flying with the FTTS in daily revenue service, with installations continuing at a rate of one per month, says Doug Cline, Lumexis’ chief executive officer. Flydubai’s management team, headed by CEO Ghaith al Ghaith and COO Ken Gile, “has become our best sales force,” says Cline.
Russia’s Transaero Airlines is the latest FTTS customer to be announced. The carrier is retrofitting its Boeing 777s and 747-400s – marking the first installation on a widebody type. On Transaero, the systems will be integrated in Aviointeriors seats.
“Our company is head-down working aggressively to ensure everything is ready for the start of Transaero’s four [former Singapore Airlines] 777-300 retrofits in Singapore, with STAECO, with the first beginning in September,” says Cline.
Transaero has recently added its 747-400 fleet to the Lumexis order book, which means the manufacturer is working on that design and fabrication simultaneously with the 777s. Installations on the carrier’s 747-400s will start before the end of this year, says Cline.
“Our Lumexis team is extremely busy and, as we rely on our customers to become our sales force, we are strongly focused on creating both system applications and a highly tailored user interface exceeding our customer’s expectations,” he adds.
“So, by the end of 2012, we will be able to point to two large airline fleets of operational aircraft flying around the world in daily service – one single-aisle and one twin-aisle. But both will boast the industry’s lightest installed weight per seat, at approximately one-third that of first-generation AVOD [audio/video on demand] systems and unmatched by any AVOD system installed or on the horizon,” claims Cline.
Lumexis does not reveal its orders before the customer is ready to go public, but Cline says the company’s order backlog “has built very rapidly”. He adds: “We began operations last year with four new aircraft installations and are on-plan to more than quadruple this year, then continuing at a similar rate of expansion in 2012 and 2013.”
Zodiac Aerospace launched its Seat Integrated Technology (SiT) late last year, with operational installation on Royal Jordanian Airbus A340s.
“SiT offers a wholly new, simplified architecture yielding a reduction of the overall IFE system weight, measured with gains of approximately 35 percent, lowering ownership cost and limiting integration costs and dramatically improving system reliability, assuring system availability for passengers at nearly 100 percent,” Zodiac says.
On Royal Jordanian’s A340s the system is integrated in Sicma seats in economy class and EADS Sogerma seats in business class. The manufacturer is now reported to be pursuing line-fit status on the Boeing 787, with Royal Jordanian having 11 of the type on order. In addition, the SiT system has been selected by Corsairfly for its A330s and 747s and South African Airways for its A330s.
IMS’ RAVE (Reliable Audio Video Entertainment) system is yet another new low-weight, seat-centric AVOD system. RAVE is based on the principle that every seatback unit is autonomous and fully self-contained, avoiding the head-end system architecture of traditional embedded systems, whereby one technical problem can affect large numbers of seats. The system has no head-end servers, distribution boxes or seat electronics boxes, and comprises just two components.
Development of RAVE follows IMS’ success in the portable IFE system market with its PAV-700 family. A number of airlines, including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and US Airways, use IMS’ semi-embedded portable devices, resulting in the company developing a “game-changing” embedded IFE system.
IMS made use of its content-loading experience from the Terminal Data Loader to make each seatback display unit (SDU) the point of both storage and playback. The system also provides the option of wireless data loading/offloading. Storage will range from four to 12TB and there will be a choice of 8.5-, 10.6-, 12.1- or 15.4-inch screens.
RAVE combines the cost-effectiveness, reliability and reduced weight of portable systems with the functionality of traditional embedded systems.
“The utter simplicity and reliability of our portable media players was always in stark contrast to the complexity of the embedded world,” says Joseph Renton, IMS founder and chief executive officer.
RAVE’s launch customer is Sri Lankan Airlines which is equipping its long-haul fleet of A330s and A340s. In addition, the system has been ordered by: Air Berlin, for installation on its A330 long-haul fleet from the fourth quarter of this year; Brussels Airlines, for installation on its five A330s in the fourth quarter; and Lufthansa, which has not revealed details of its order but will initially conduct a trial.
“RAVE installations for Lufthansa, Air Berlin, SriLankan and Brussels Airlines will all take place in the latter part of 2011, the majority in the fourth quarter,” says IMS. “The aircraft backlog stands at 50-plus aircraft, with the potential for that number to more than double as the trial-dependent portions of these orders are activated.”
Furthermore, there are “at least three unannounced airlines in the queue”, the company says. Meanwhile, development of RAVE continues, with the system being “an evolving platform”.
With all of these developments, reports of the death of seatback installed IFEC systems appear to have been greatly exaggerated.