Surfing the Skies

What can passengers expect from in-flight entertainment systems in the future? Caroline Cook travelled to Los Angeles to find out.

The TopSeries AVANT offers a seamless experience not seen on previous IFE systems.

We’ve all been there: you are halfway through a long-haul flight and suddenly your seat’s in-flight entertainment (IFE) system is on the blink.  It may not even be just your seat’s systems – occasionally a whole row of seats, perhaps even the entire aircraft, could become what the industry calls ‘dark’.
Ironically, I experienced this recently when travelling to California to explore Thales InFlight Entertainment and Connectivity’s (IFEC) headquarters in Irvine, Los Angeles. “Our biggest fear is a ‘dark’ flight,” said Alan Pellegrini, CEO, reminding me that my particular flight had not benefitted from Thales’ latest products.
Following the introduction of its TopSeries system in 2004, Thales has proved itself to be one of the key players in the IFE market and has now begun introducing several variations of its systems to tackle what it believes to be the primary issues facing the airline industry.
“We think IFE is one of the most exciting markets out there in the aerospace industry, certainly the most dynamic in terms of pace of change,” said Mr Pellegrini.
 
Innovation
The third generation of the TopSeries system, AVANT, has several elements previously unseen in its predecessors.  Passengers can now enjoy a user-friendly touch screen featuring high-definition graphics and ranging from 9in (22.9cm) to 23in (58.4cm).

Alan Pellegrini, CEO, Thales IFEC.

Significantly, the system features a higher form of technology integration, eliminating the need for an electronic box underneath the seat, providing more foot room for passengers and less weight for the airline.
Keen to explain the product’s scalability, Mr Pellegrini stated: “It’s important to address multiple segments of the airline community.  There are some airlines like Qatar Airways that are willing to pay a premium for a high-end system with all the bells and whistles.
“However, there are other airlines that are more in the low-cost area; they want 85% of the capability but at a significantly lower price.  One of the best features of AVANT is that it scales very well to cover that entire range.”
Low-cost airlines may prefer to select the recently-introduced AVANTlite system.  This version relies on memory stored inside the seatback display, effectively eliminating the head-end or server-based components of a system, reducing power usage and weight by 30% and 20% respectively.  The display can hold around 256 gigabytes (GB) – the equivalent of 100 movies – of content, and AVANTlite provides this to the customer at a lower cost.
Not only does the display hold plenty of backup data, the head-end servers, when needed, can hold up to two terabytes (TB) of content.
The display also has the option of credit card readers, encouraging passengers to spend while they fly, and Smart Passenger Integrated Modules (SmartPIMs) – interchangeable sockets including USB and RCA jacks – allowing the passenger to connect devices to the systems.
The TouchPMU is similar to modern smartphones and runs on an Android operating system. (All images: Thales)

One of the more innovative products is the touch passenger media unit (TouchPMU), similar to a consumer smart phone, which acts as its own entertainment device while also controlling the IFE system.  For example, a passenger may want to watch a movie on the seat-back screen and have the Moving Map application running simultaneously on the 3.8in (9.7cm) LCD TouchPMU.  Mr Pellegrini believes that this type of dual device-based system is becoming the norm.
Thales IFEC’s portfolio also includes TopEffects.  The CEO explained: “It is involved upfront in working with an airline to customise the graphic user interface [GUI], to underscore the brand of that airline effectively to its passengers.”
As the company is the first to run its new IFE units and TouchPMUs on Android operating systems (OS), it has opened up the range of applications available to passengers.  Thales has even introduced its own digital store for the purpose and Mr Pellegrini said the catalogue of apps available is expanding rapidly.
New technology allows companies like Thales to keep IFE development more in line with the consumer market.  Mr Pellegrini continued:  “We now provide a foundation where even the hardware isn’t changing and we can alter what the system can do more readily.  We believe we are closer than we were in the past to keeping on-board technology quite current.”
 
Connectivity
Wireless internet on board has been a prime target for many in-flight entertainment providers.
The AVANT system offers passengers high-definition graphics.

Thales IFEC’s brand, TopConnect, is already deploying air brand connectivity systems based on SwiftBroadband technology, using a satellite system from global mobile satellite communications provider, Inmarsat.  There are currently four constellations (a group of coordinated satellites) that support SwiftBroadband, effectively providing passengers with a medium bandwidth connection.
Stuart Dunleavy, Vice President and General Manager of Connectivity & Media at Thales IFEC, stated:  “Connectivity is one of the most significant growth areas of our business.  The ultimate desire for our industry is to offer airline passengers the same degree of connectivity and communications that we enjoy on the ground.  The problem is trying to deliver that functionality at 30,000ft [9,144m] and 600mph [965.6km/h].”
Present connectivity solutions are not able to keep all passengers connected.  It is not possible to stream high-definition content at 10 megabytes (MB) per second to 500 passengers at one time.  Interference issues still exist, particularly when an aircraft moves from one satellite connection to another.
For this reason, Thales’ connectivity solutions are aimed at the narrowbody market only, where it believes that content could be streamed to the majority of passengers at a “comfortable” bandwidth, albeit not at 10MB/sec.
 
Streaming
One of the solutions is TopSeries AVA, which can complement an embedded IFE system or act as stand-alone on an aircraft.  It requires little investment from an airline and a hugely decreased downtime – ideal for low-cost carriers.
This product allows IFE content to be streamed directly to a passenger’s personal device, whether it be a smartphone, laptop or tablet, running on a multitude of operating systems (however, as AVA runs using Android OS, Apple users will have to download the appropriate software prior to boarding the aircraft).
AVA offers video and audio on demand; multiple applications; multi-lingual support; and the all-important interruptions for passenger announcements, among others.
It can currently stream to up to 100 passengers per server, although this may change depending on the type of device the passenger is carrying.  Anybody who has streamed content before will recognise that a laptop and a smartphone will show a digital content file at different qualities; AVA is able to adapt its content and optimise its quality for an individual device.
However, an issue that is still being discussed involves digital rights management.  Quite rightly, studios are uneasy about streaming “early-window” (in other words, pre-release) movies to personal devices in case of piracy.  Thales IFEC is determined to secure this content to ensure that passengers are unable to download the content to distribute elsewhere once they leave the aircraft.
 
Ka Band
Focusing on a new satellite constellation, coupled with new onboard equipment and technology, Thales is attempting to provide a connectivity solution with three main areas in mind: coverage for a global audience; capacity for a high-quality online experience and price.
Mr Dunleavy explained that the single biggest change to the industry to enable delivery of the three solutions is the introduction of the Inmarsat Global Xpress Ka band satellite system.  Due for launch in 2015, there are plans for the satellite network to revolutionise the airline IFE industry in a commercially viable way.
The Ka band covers radio frequencies between 26.5 and 40 gigahertz (GHz).
TopSeries AVA will allow passengers to access an airline’s IFE system with their personal devices.

Four companies are working together to deliver Ka band connectivity to the airline industry.  Inmarsat will deliver three satellite constellations and has, in turn, selected Honeywell to provide the antennas and modems, which will communicate between the aircraft and the satellites.
Thales IFEC will integrate the products of those two companies to offer an end-to-end solution to the airlines.  An additional partner, OnAir, will provide mobile communications and internet services to the airline community, including WiFi licences and the necessary regulatory approvals.
“We will add some of the most important elements to offer an end-to-end service: a WiFi network, the onboard mobile telephony network, GSM [Global System for Mobile Communications], the software and the servers that are required to power the solution on the aircraft.  Finally, we will enable a single point of contact for the airline for aircraft integration certification and product support,” said Mr Dunleavy.
Most importantly, he asserts that each aircraft is “guaranteed” to be able to stream between 20 and 40MB/sec.
Once broadband is available in the air, the available bandwidth and the price will enable airlines to stream live TV to the aircraft, either in near-time or real-time.  Passenger trends have shifted slightly away from personal communications such as email and SMS, and have moved towards other consumer products.  Mr Dunleavy elaborated:  “Now they carry tens, maybe hundreds, of different apps [on their personal devices] that each have a thin connection to the internet to keep them updated.  [Social networking sites] Facebook and Twitter are classic examples.  We think that Ka is a great way of enabling that next step in passenger functionality.”
While the industry waits for Ka band connectivity to become a reality, many airlines are relying on L band (1-2GHz) to keep their passengers online.  Oman Air currently flies with an OnAir solution, as well as Qatar Airways’ Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the first of which was delivered on November 13, 2012.
Qatar Airways is an important customer to Thales IFEC – its Dreamliner is the first of its type to fly with connectivity on board, the TouchPMU and with an Android-based IFE system.  The carrier has also chosen the system, along with AVANT, for 80 of its future Airbus A350s.
Other customers flying with Thales connectivity include Aeroflot and Saudi Airlines.
 
Content
While most passengers would prefer to watch movies or listen to a CD while in-flight, Thales IFEC is aware that content is changing with the widespread usage of smartphones.  According to the company, the number one app used on board over the last ten years has been the digital Moving Map, which tracks the flight and offers statistics and estimated arrival time to the viewer.
Therefore, it is important that airlines can customise passengers’ apps used while in flight, leading to a better quality experience and, occasionally, a larger revenue.
However, connectivity is also becoming more important for an airline’s employees.  Not only can the ground contact the crew (for information about connecting flights, for example), the crew can communicate maintenance requests, passenger complaints and baggage issues.
Third party apps such as Telemedicine could also be useful, offering passengers a higher level of care and potentially decreasing an airline’s insurance costs.