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The Challenges of Meeting the In-Flight Connectivity Demand

The industry faces new challenges in meeting passenger demand for in-flight entertainment and connectivity.

One private jet customer wanted live TV so he could watch a football game while crossing the Pacific Ocean. Another asked for an online office setup so he could work on the fly. Then were the parents who requested their 10-year-old, ultra-long-range airplane be updated with the newest technology, in part so they could use personal electronics like at home.

“Clients’ requests for connectivity have followed what they are experiencing in their life outside the airplane — better speed, broader band, bigger files, live TV and interconnectivity with their smartphones and tablets,” explained Robert Fisch, chief aviation officer with Luxaviation, which fielded those customer requests.

Meeting such consumer demand can be a challenge for avionics teams as the equipment and network infrastructure required for such high-bandwidth usage continue to advance. “We’re in the middle of this hardware evolution,” said Jerome Conway, VP of engineering for FDS Avionics. “The equipment must continually evolve to be faster. The connections between the aircraft and the satellite, and also the satellite to the ground, have to be faster, too.”

To do that effectively, avionics executives and engineers need to work with owners and solution providers to either “rip and replace” legacy routers and cables or restock integrated systems with the latest best-in-breed products.

They also must seriously consider if it’s time to switch to a fully wireless infrastructure and at what cost. Any of these options can be expensive, but failure to keep up with today’s cabin In-Flight Entertainment and Connectivity (IFEC) expectations could come at an even greater cost.

A Competitive Difference

“In the commercial airline space, passengers for whom this kind of connectivity is important are starting to select their airlines or aircraft type based on the connectivity,” Conway said. He noted this also applies to business and chartered jet services, in which some customers now ask for a specific tail number aircraft because they know it comes with the connectivity they need. “Passengers are voting with their selection of aircraft in that market,” he said.

And the aviation industry is responding. In January 2017, more than 80 airlines had already or planned to install IFC solutions, according to global consulting firm Euroconsult. The firm’s researchers predict that, within the next three years, more than 17,000 commercial aircraft will offer passengers some form of connectivity — a steep increase from 6,500 aircraft in 2016.

A surge in wireless service on single- and twin-aisle aircraft and new high-throughput and Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites to stream media content is expected to bring in some $9.82 billion in IFEC hardware, connectivity and content by 2024, according to market intelligence provider Grand View Research.

“The IFEC market is truly global,” said Andy Mason, vice president of system and program management at Kontron, whose embedded computing technology offering spans hardware, middleware and services. The fastest growth for connectivity outside of North America, he said, is in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, China, southeast Asia and Latin America.

“Many airlines serving overseas markets are choosing to deploy wireless IFE without internet connectivity, at least initially,” Mason continued. “The main reason seems to be the perceived high cost of satcom installation and operation. It’s expected many of these airlines will circle back and add connectivity at a later date.”

How to Handle all that Hardware

For those diving in now, hardware selection in particular can be difficult, especially when determining total cost of ownership.

“With technology advancing so quickly, airlines demand that hardware suppliers have an IFEC product roadmap that can be sustained and supported over many years,” Mason said. “When new wireless standards, storage solutions, processors and network technologies become available, the expectation is that an efficient technology refresh of the system can be rolled out.”

This is especially true for avionics crews grappling with the proliferation of personal electronic devices most passengers now carry. A SITA 2017 Passenger Trends IT Survey indicates 98 percent of airline passengers now board a flight with a portable electronic device, and 70 percent carry on at least two devices, depending on the purpose of their travel.

“Passenger and crew wireless devices evolve rapidly since they are based on the latest consumer smartphone, tablet or laptop products,” Mason said. “The constant rollover to the latest client devices means that the cabin Wi-Fi and cellular infrastructure needs to keep pace.”

There are two main types of hardware airlines must have for today’s IFC demands. Connecting passengers to onboard cached content requires headend equipment that includes a general-purpose server embedded with Ethernet switches and holding multi-terabytes of solid-state disk storage. A dedicated content-loading line-replacement unit gets media onto the server.

With wired systems, up to thousands of feet (and pounds) of Ethernet cabling is hidden along cabin walls and ceilings, delivering power and content to consoles either above head or at seat level. In recent years, however, more airlines have adopted hybrid or pure wireless systems dependent on in-cabin wireless access points — typically three for narrow-body aircraft and seven for multi-aisle airplanes. The Wi-Fi systems use one of the IEEE 802.11 standards, such as a WLAN or the supercharged 802.11ax, to route data between server and client devices.

“We are seeing more and more fixed IFE screens that also support 802.11 wireless capability,” said Michael Kuehn, president of Astronics Connectivity Systems and Certification. Such a system allows for wireless local content and system updates without the need for weighty network cabling throughout the aircraft.

“The bottom line, for airlines and IFE providers,” Kuehn said, “is that the sophisticated complexity of these systems requires partners with hardware expertise, systems integration engineering and often systems certification services to bring it all together.”

FDS Avionics’ Conway said cabling remains a big issue. A Cessna Citation X, for instance, carries close to 1,000 pounds of wiring. Some Wi-Fi-enabled jets still have kilometers of cable — and thousands of connectors and cable segments — for their IFEC capabilities.

“Everybody has to deal with cabling,” Conway said. “Obviously, securing that cable and making that connector as accessible as possible for maintenance are all considerations installers have to deal with.”

A Word about Security

The same network security issues that plague land-based enterprises also are of concern to the aviation industry. How do you provide open pipelines for passengers and cabin crews without letting in malicious intruders? It is, of course, one reason media/connectivity servers in the avionics bay are isolated from flight-critical avionics systems.

“It is a growing concern,” Luxaviation’s Fisch said. “With the amount of data and the complexity involved in the open systems — of in-flight entertainment, mostly — a malicious intent is difficult to prevent.

“With aircraft systems, they are not much of a concern since those systems need to be physically segregated from IFE and are maintained in a closed loop,” he continued. “But the connectivity of the airplane increases the risk of hacking.”

The Sky’s the Limit when it Comes to Future features

“One of the biggest challenges we see is just keeping up with the technology,” Conway said. “Not only do you have to keep up with FAA regulations and installation drawings and cabling, but the technology is evolving so fast that it can be hard to know what pieces of IFEC equipment are improving for the benefit of passengers and which are staying static.”

David Helfgott, CEO of Phasor Solutions, said three IFEC-related areas are now converging: high user demand, more high-powered satellites being put into service and the next generation of antennas to more efficiently pull in Ka- and Ku-bands from the electromagnetic spectrum.

Helfgott’s company is beta testing a new, low-profile, 2-inch-high antenna that would hug the curvature of an airplane and electronically boost broadband services significantly. It initially will be available on vessels, such as yachts and cruise ships, and trains before moving into the aeronautical space in mid-2019.

“The next five years are going to be incredible for in-flight communications,” he said.

“Nextgen connectivity and communications standards will change the way we look at some aspects of IFEC,” added Mason. “Personal devices will continue to evolve, with continued emphasis on mobility and continuous connectivity.

“Onboard systems will collect larger amounts of data from the passengers and from the aircraft itself. As more data is collected, we expect to see new real-time analytics and autonomous applications that probably haven’t been thought of today.”

Conway recommends finding a trusted partner to develop a solution that minimizes costs, disruptions and downtime while keeping up with consumer expectations. “That way you can improve the user experience, which is the goal for all of us,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, we all have to be focused on that passenger experience if we want to stay in business.” VS