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The bright future of IFE
We took the opportunity at the opening of Thales’ new maintenance, onboard service, media loading and AOG spare facility in London Heathrow (see news story) to find out what the latest developments are in the company’s IFE work and what the future holds.
Alan Pellegrini (pictured left), CEO of Thales In-flight Entertainment and Connectivity, predicts that the IFEC market will increase from its current US$2.9 billion to over US$7.4 billion over the next 10 years. A remarkable projection, and one he is confident in.
“We are somewhat blessed in the current economic climate to be looking at a significant growth business for inflight entertainment and connectivity,” he states. “One reason is that the global aviation industry is doing well, with over 2,000 Airbus and Boeing aircraft being made every year. There is also an interesting dynamic in IFE, with airlines such as British Airways doing retrofit upgrades, so we’re not just tied into new aircraft production cycles but also the frequency airlines want to invest in cabins. The industry has a big thrust into connectivity closely tied to entertainment.”
The growth also owes much to new, less expensive IFEC packages being developed by companies such as Thales, that allow airlines with older fleets to enhance their entertainment offering. The lower price point also makes in-seat rather than drop-down systems viable for single-aisle aircraft, a trend that started with Middle Eastern carriers but has expanded to the likes of American Airlines, according to Pellegrini.
Such low-cost packages include Thales’ TopSeries Avant ‘Light’, which is a seat-back monitor containing a solid-state storage system. No electronics box is needed under the seat, and with each seat’s IFE system being standalone, componentry is reduced, power draw is reduced by 30%, weight by 20%, and reliability improves. The units can be specified at up to 256GB, though when the units go into service next year, only 64GB models will be used. As hardware prices go down, it is expected that higher-spec models will be purchased. Avant Light is based on Android, so in addition to film and TV content, many apps and games can be added.
The system is a reduced-function version of the flagship TopSeries Avant system, announced in 2011 and due to take flight onboard launch customer Qatar Airways’ 787 in 2013, with BMI to follow. The system was originally designed with the A350 in mind, but customers are due to use it across almost every aircraft type.
The full Avant system also offers up to 256GB solid-state storage in each seatback unit, but is backed up by a solid-state 2TB server. Content is viewed on a touchscreen Gen 4 Smart Video Display Unit, available in sizes from 9in for economy and 23in for business and first.
Pellegrini explains the advantage of the server backup: “Our biggest fear is a ‘dark’ flight with an entire aircraft or row of seats without entertainment. Despite redundancies in the system, it can happen. This level of storage enough for 1,000 movies throughout the aircraft, with 100 in the seat as backup.”
Passengers used to multitasking can use the recently launched Touch Passenger Media Unit (TouchPMU), a hand-held unit similar to an iPod that controls the system and serves as a dual entertainment device. The unit is mounted beneath the main Avant display and connected to the seatback via a retractable lead. While watching a film on the main display, passengers can watch the moving map, play a game or order a drink by flicking through the options on the 3.8in LCD screen. It can also be used as a standalone device and loaded with Android apps. Based on Thales’ i8000 platform, the TouchPMU has connectivity with GSM and Wi-Fi access using the Inmarsat satellite constellation. The device will first be used on a Qatar’s 787, with BA’s 787 to follow.
A further option is the Smart Passenger Integrated Modules (SmartPIMs), a set of sockets located under the display that can accommodate up to four interchangeable connectors, such as USB and RCA jacks. A credit card reader is a further option.
Of course a major development at the moment is streaming video, or wireless content distribution. Thales has developed a system, the TopSeries AVA (depending on who you ask, it is either short for Avant, or Audio Video Anytime), a wireless media streaming product developed with Siemens that can be used either as a standalone system for short-haul aircraft without seatback units, or added to the Avant systems. An Avant head-end server streams content to PEDs via the wireless network in the aircraft using Siemens streaming technology that is already well-proven in the train industry.
At present, due to interference issues, AVA is restricted to short-range aircraft as it can only comfortably serve 90 passengers. “We don’t recommend serving 300 passengers simultaneously,” adds Pellegrini.
However, possible solutions for the longer-haul market could be to just stream to the business and first class cabins, or to use embedded IFE in premium classes and stream content wirelessly to the main cabin so the airline doesn’t have to fit seatback units to economy seats.
“AVA will be flying by Q1 2013 – we already have two unannounced customers,” states Pellegrini. “What were seeing in the market is that one size doesn’t fit all. However, AVA can come down to a low price point, with just a server, a way to control it and a wireless network, making it cheaper than drop-down systems. We will licence and code the content and distribute it to the aircraft. For one of the two customers, we are using out GateSync product that uses broadband connectivity at the gate to load content to devices.”
There are still limitations regarding early window content though. “We’re working hard to overcome it, but haven’t demonstrated enough to [the studios] satisfaction to allow it. We think it’s on the horizon though,” adds Pellegrini.
At present Thales can offer 864kb/s to aircraft, but higher rates are in the offing. “Some companies are focussed on Ku-band but our focus is on Ka-band as our next-generation solution,” explains Pellegrini. “We’re working closely with Inmarsat and Globalexpress in order to provide that in early 2015 when the satellites and avionics will be running.”
Thales is also working on an apps portal and is keen to develop a large developer community who can licence their apps for Thales to sell to airlines.
The company is also developing a new user interface for premium seats called Gesture Control whereby a camera in the display reacts to passenger movements to scroll through menus, etc. As well as being an interesting feature, this technology eliminates the need for handsets, which are not inexpensive and can have reliability issues. “There is also a coolness factor some airlines will want,” adds Pellegrini.
To see a video of the Gesture Control system in operation, visit our video section or click here.
The Qatar connection
Another recent development at Thales is its technical laboratory in Qatar, opened in April as a joint venture with Qatar Airways under the official name, Thales QSTP-LLC. This technical laboratory currently houses state-of-the-art IFEC equipment that supports software and application prototyping, content integration, system level testing and training.
Left: The TopSeries Avant will be used on Qatar Airways' new seats for the 787, manufactured by B/E Aerospace
Together, Thales and Qatar Airways will establish a Joint Innovation and Technology Project (JITP) that aims to create new innovations. Of course, the airline has a particular interest as its has selected the Thales TopSeries system for its large fleet of Airbus aircraft including A319s, A320s, A321s, A350s and A380s, with the 787s to follow, which will also feature SwiftBroadband cabin connectivity for access to current news, sports, social networks and other mobile applications.
Thales has agreed a further joint venture, this time with China Electronics Technology Avionics (CETCA), which aims to bring together technology solutions companies dedicated to the new Chinese-made COMAC C919 aircraft.
The partnership supports the integration of the TopSeries system in the C919, which will first take flight in 2014 with aircraft deliveries scheduled to begin in 2016. The Thales system will be a scalable platform offering services ranging from interactive audio capability through to full in-seat on-demand services, with wireless networks and connectivity to follow.