In-flight entertainment (IFE) on commercial aircraft will always face challenges of technology evolution, particularly as consumers push to see more advanced electronics that keep up with the technology they have come to expect on the ground. However, FAA approval, industry compliance and testing are costly and time-consuming processes. Installing IFE systems makes airlines keenly aware of the costs, complexity, weight and overall capabilities associated with making this type of long-term investment. A complete roll-out can take up to two years, and requires time for technology evaluation, FAA/EASA/CAAC approvals, STC, flight trials, and then finally fleet installation.
In this environment, standards-based solutions and pre-certified systems are accelerating system deployment. By blending wireless access points and general-purpose airborne servers, airlines can reduce complexity and costs, and create a modern, high-performance wireless IFE framework. In addition to reducing costs and overall time to launch, these open hardware platforms also ensure an upgrade path that protects systems from component obsolescence. Several distinct onboard system architectures have emerged over time – and airlines can start with a non-connected installation and add the connectivity solution at the same time or later from either an air-to-ground solution or air-to-satellite solution. Whether it’s live streaming video to each seat, providing localized content, or purely connecting personal devices via access points throughout the aircraft, airlines are able to be more considered in their IFE offerings, based on priorities and overall revenue strategy for the type of service being offered.
Wireless in the sky
Traditional IFE installations were previously implemented through full-wired seatback displays, a costly proposition which added precious weight to the aircraft, had high maintenance costs and quickly became out of date. Today, wireless technologies open a new world of options and allow IFE to follow a development path similar to consumer electronics. Airlines can essentially create an onboard intranet for passenger use; these systems are both scalable and reliable in delivering standards-based wi-fi services for the broad range of passenger devices and user-load scenarios. Flexible, modular systems in particular are streamlining cost-effective IFE deployments, and include the ability to seamlessly connect to onboard ‘backhaul’ equipment, providing connectivity from ground-based transponder towers or satellite-based communications.
Wireless servers and access points now fit seamlessly into the physical constraints of existing aircraft, and are compliant with appropriate standards for airborne deployment and operation. Most essential among these is RTCA/DO-160G, defining a spectrum of environmental specifications and test criteria that ensure safe and reliable performance of all airborne electronics. In addition, these units are optimized for efficient maintenance and easy integration with other airborne systems, for example meeting ARINC mounting, interoperability and connectivity standards. Systems are pre-certified to FAA/EASA/CAAC requirements (PMA), include STC documentation support, installation kits, and are supported via FAA and EASA Certified Repair Station. Being standards-based with this level of air industry certification protects fast deployment, simplifying a potentially lengthy process by incorporating required FAA documentation, processes and approvals in product development.
Onboard wireless bandwidth
A primary IFE trend is offering video streaming to all passengers onboard. However, legacy wireless access points using 802.11a/b/g wireless standards are not able to support high throughput to users on an aircraft. Integrated cabin wireless access points, or ‘CWAPs,’ are able to meet this challenge by enabling a higher performance onboard wireless network. Current deployments based on 802.11n wireless standards can support more than 40 clients streaming HD-quality videos per radio (usually two radios per CWAP). Next generation CWAPs are utilizing the latest 802.11ac wireless standards, which will provide even more throughput depending on the client device. On a narrow-body commercial aircraft, three CWAPs are typically installed evenly throughout the overhead cabin ceiling to provide adequate coverage to passenger devices. These CWAPs are lightweight, small footprint systems that offer low-power performance and are wired back to the server in the avionics bay. A new trend in the next-generation CWAPs is integrated antennas, which eliminate the need for external antennas and help simplify the installation process; for business and regional jets there is 28VDC power input equivalent CWAP.
By capitalizing on the latest IEEE 802.11 specification, CWAP-based systems can increase bandwidth and maximize throughput to wireless clients onboard. It is also important to note that CWAPs are backwards compatible to earlier 802.11 standards, creating a migration path for airlines to upgrade performance of existing IFE solutions. Illustrated by Kontron’s Cab-n-Connect CWAP product family (pictured above), developed through close collaboration with Motorola, these CWAPs enter the playing field as flight proven and fully certified wireless access points with current deployments based on 802.11a/b/g/n standards and 802.11ac available in 2015.
IFE with airborne servers
For IFE in both linefit and retrofit systems, general-purpose airborne servers are also evolving as a major component of modern IFE deployment. With scalable, open architecture, these standards-based systems readily meet the secure communication requirements for advanced, Ethernet-based network installations. They are flexible for long-life deployments and enable rugged performance in a sealed, natural convection design – optimal for onboard systems that rely on high data rates for video or other types of streaming media. Notably, by implementing the server with a wireless access point, IFE system developers can create an onboard enterprise-class wireless networking solution that is tested and approved by the FAA (PMA). For example, Kontron’s next-generation ACE Flight 600 general-purpose airborne server (pictured above), when deployed with a CWAP, enables high-performance video streaming applications in the aircraft cabin.
Reducing deployment time and total cost of ownership to the program is a key characteristic of these highly integrated application-ready platforms. Proven in airborne military deployments where electronic devices require non-stop connectivity, these rugged systems now provide a reliable, flexible and high-performance framework for airborne flight information systems. Qualified to DO-160G and optimized for a full range of flight information systems, these server platforms offer many terabytes of SSD storage, the latest processor technology, software development kits (SDK), and enable fast-track development; a wide array of applications can be managed for both crew and passenger web servers, such as flight maintenance or manifest servers, connectivity servers, wireless content servers and IFE servers.
IFE’s evolving scope and potential
The growing industry preference is for full wi-fi connectivity in the main cabin via wireless servers and access points – this eliminates cables, allows the aircraft to avoid restrictions on where devices can be used, and ultimately supports a much greater number and range of devices. Enterprise-grade access points provide secure wireless connectivity and enable best-in-class performance for next-generation video and multimedia applications; the same high-performance systems also speed deployment by meeting stringent industry requirements for system size, weight and power. Highly integrated systems (server, managed switch and expandable storage) are simplifying new IFE systems, and providing a cost-effective, competitive opportunity to differentiate onboard services.
These next-generation certified open platform systems are making installations easier, more affordable and much less complicated. At the same time, airlines are able to grow and create new revenue opportunities by immediately servicing customers with the latest in wireless connectivity and providing a superior passenger experience. As airlines compete for market share, wireless IFE is poised to play a key role in both managing rising costs and attracting passengers by virtue of better services.