Consumer expectations for information and entertainment are creating big challenges for airlines that need to provide Internet access while providing inflight services that mirror what’s available in the home and office.
Seatback screens are being eliminated on some flights, but they still remain important for lengthy flights, prompting system designers to create cost-effective displays and sound systems that mimic the performance of HDTVs and high-resolution tablets.
Whether they’re on the plane one hour or 12, consumers have made connectivity the watchword in commercial cabins. For many passengers, Internet access is almost as important as a pressurized cabin. The race to provide high bandwidth links is making satellite services a critical part of the airline industry.
Many of today’s constantly-connected consumers balk at spending a few hours without Web access. Commercial airlines are responding by forging links with satellite providers that give flyers the same capabilities they have on the ground. Increasing bandwidth is one of the focal points for inflight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) systems.
“High throughput satellites (HTS) are going to be launched in early 2016, which will make exponentially more capacity available,” said Panasonic Avionics Corp. spokesman Brian Bardwell. “Layering these HTS spot beams over our existing wide-beam network ensures both global coverage and the greatest throughput. Our wide-beam network today covers 99.6% of all commercial flight hours, offering up to 50 Mbps. HTS capacity that will bring 200 Mbps, as well as extremely high throughput capacity, that will bring up to 3.3 Gbps in certain regions.”
Panasonic’s satellite partner, Intelsat, currently estimates that its global broadband aeronautical throughput is 350 Mbps. That’s expanding rapidly now that newly launched Intelsat’s EpicNG satellites each add 25-60 Gbps of capacity. They offer both wide and spot beams, enabling intelligent use of spectrum to provide as much as 200 Mbps to a plane flying through any given beam.
Other airline and satellite partners are making similar moves. Jazeera Airways plans to install Rockwell Collins’ PAVES Cabin Wireless and Inmarsat’s Global Xpress connectivity on its Airbus A320 aircraft by late 2016. That will let more than 500 passengers stream video content simultaneously while also using an array of apps and services.
“Inmarsat’s Global Xpress constellation is set to transform the passenger experience. Airlines can offer inflight connectivity that is fast, reliable and consistent, with coverage across the world,” said Leo Mondale, President of Inmarsat Aviation.
Inmarsat also equipped more than 150 Lufthansa planes with its Global Xpress commercial Ka-band satellite network. Lufthansa plans to continue this rise in bandwidth.
“To keep up with the new Ka satellite technology, the Ku system used for the airlines will be upgraded to highthroughput satellites, and at a later stage to extreme high-throughput satellites,” said Sabine Hierschbiel, Connectivity & IFE Systems Manager at Lufthansa. “This will improve performance, providing much more bandwidth to the individual user.”
Passengers will readily ask for more bandwidth, but airlines and satellite providers have to figure out how to provide it profitably. At some point, consumers and providers alike will determine that they’re no longer willing to continue the upward spiral. Airlines may be the ones to tell consumers that their usage will have some limits.
“All this has a natural end, either technology-wise or in an economical aspect,” Hierschbiel said. “So it will be interesting to see how long the industry is willing to continue this growth, or if at some time the industry will set parameters to the kind of usage being offered inflight.”
Security will be a key factor regardless of how much bandwidth is used. Connectivity always brings the downside of the Internet: hackers and malware. A hacker who figures out how to take control of a plane could extort huge sums.
System designers block attacks through the IFEC systems by isolating aircraft control systems from the information systems used by passengers and crew. That prevents a hacker or a problematic app from causing problems with flight controls. Airlines are also ensuring that their IFEC systems aren’t compromised.
“We only use the latest IT security mechanisms to ensure the data transferred over the connectivity system cannot be manipulated,” Hierschbiel said. “This includes end-to-end encryption, use of certificates, hardening of connected devices, and the enforcement of strong passwords. Security analyses and audits are performed and continuously repeated. Additionally, airlines, aircraft manufacturers, and authorities are working together on regulation and processes to avoid the possibility of interference with any operational aircraft interface.”
Make Me Smile
While many passengers will link their personal devices to these broadband services, others expect to leave their portable electronics home or in their carry-on. Airlines still need to give them some form of entertainment, especially on long flights.
Seat-back IFE and connectivity and streaming to passengers’ devices can be complementary technologies. When airlines install seat-back screens, they’re increasingly turning to technologies like high-definition displays. Consumers used to huge in-home TVs and lifelike tablets won’t give good performance rating scores to airlines that offer low-resolution screens.
Passengers’ desires to match their in-home environment extends to sound quality. Headsets provide an ideal way to let users set volume levels and block out the outside world. They can also provide features like immersive sound that can’t be provided in cabins.
“HD Audio, the latest advancement in our IFE solutions, complements the display’s visual quality,” Bardwell said. “A custom HD-headset connects via USB to provide Hybrid Active Noise Cancelling and theater-like digital surround sound. HD-Audio also features Open-Ear, which allows passengers to converse naturally when wearing the headset.”
Design teams throughout the industry are striving to reduce noise in cabins. For example, Boeing's 777X interior will provide noise levels that are comparable to those of its 787 Dreamliner. Lower cabin noise is achieved through the new engine nacelle design, new high bypass ratio engines, better insulation, and a passenger cabin that doubles the number of air nozzles with lower velocity and less noise.
The link between consumer technologies and IFE extends into software, leveraging cell phone operating systems. Early last year, Thales Avant rolled out an Android-based IFE and connectivity solution, first used by SriLankan Airlines’ passengers. Avant lets them stream live content from BBC News, AFP, and AccuWeather.
The use of Android opens the door for more personalization. No advanced entertainment system can evolve without app support. Providers are making it simpler for consumers, advertisers, and others to leverage apps to meet varying passenger requests.
“With our Companion App mobile technology, airlines can consolidate passenger frequent flyer profiles with IFEC preference data,” Bardwell said. “Onboard the aircraft, passenger preferences can be shared from the app to the in-seat monitor allowing the airline to deliver a tailored passenger experience.”
Development software is also making it easier for airlines to develop their own look and feel for passengers while they also manage content. The Rockwell Collins’ graphical user interface developer kit, which can be accessed through a web portal management tool, simplifies this customization. It also features an open-software architecture for thirdparty applications.
Rockwell Collins’ PAVES seat-centric design also includes hardware advances that eliminate single points of failure. Each in-seat system is independent, so seat monitors store viewing content. The hardware also features a quick-release mechanism so in-seat displays can be replaced quickly and easily.