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Cabin Tech '07
In an ideal world, you'd have it all-a Wi-Fi Internet connection, e-mail access on your BlackBerry, four bars of signal strength on your cellphone and 200 channels of satellite television on a big, flat high-definition screen, all from the comfort of your seat in the cabin. In short, you'd have technologies that would make your time in the air more like your time on the ground.
Luckily, the products and services exist-or soon will exist-to bring nearly all the hi-tech comforts of home and office to the business jet. Here are the latest developments in 10 technologies you won't want to leave the ground without.
1. Wi-Fi Internet Connections
These days, you can find Internet access just about anywhere-in your hotel room, in the coffee shop down the street or, with a wireless air card offered by many cellular providers, just about anywhere there's a cell signal. Getting online has never been easier.
For now, though, a satellite connection remains the only way to get Internet access after takeoff. Satellite communications provider Inmarsat offers the two most popular services, Swift64 and SwiftBroadband. Each requires installation of expensive hardware and dish-style antennas on the fuselage or atop the tail. And because the antennas are so large, they can be installed on only the biggest airplanes. The services are available anywhere in the world except over the North and South Poles, but connections cost as much as $10 a minute. Swift64 provides a download connection speed of 64 kilobits per second, which is equivalent to dial-up. SwiftBroadband advertises a data speed of 432 kbps, or about equal to a lower-tier DSL connection.
Some aircraft manufacturers are offering their own broadband alternatives, which can be purchased and installed alongside or instead of an Inmarsat system. Services from Gulfstream and Bombardier feature faster connection speeds than Inmarsat but are limited to certain geographic regions. Gulfstream's Broad Band Multi Link service and Bombardier's eXchange are claimed by their respective manufacturers to be capable of connections speeds of around 3.5 megabits per second, which is on par with home and office cable modems. Coverage areas include North America, the North Atlantic and Europe, with other regions on the way. Both companies offer service plans, with 1,400 minutes of annual connection time costing roughly $6,000.
Yet another option for in-flight Wi-Fi should be available by this time next year. The service, from Colorado-based AirCell, will use ground stations across the U.S. to beam data to and from aircraft flying over the lower 48 states. The advantages of the system, according to the company, will be fast data connections (up to 3.5 megabits per second to the aircraft), low service-package pricing (although nothing's been announced) and much smaller antennas, meaning access for a greater number of aircraft. Cessna has signed up to offer AirCell's Axxess hardware in some of its models and other manufacturers are likely to follow. Axxess includes a Wi-Fi hotspot for the cabin as well as two channels of voice satcom through Iridium, the satellite voice communications service.
2. Satellite TV
Half-million-dollar price tags help explain why most business jets still lack satellite TV. But as with any new technology that has been around for several years, prices are starting to edge down.
The hardware needed to bring a reliable satellite television signal to the airplane isn't all that complicated, despite what you may have heard. Basically, all you need is a dish-type antenna that sits atop the aircraft and continuously points at the satellite. Sure, you may lose the signal occasionally, but modern electronics are up to the task of keeping the antenna locked on its target.
Rockwell Collins plans to bring a lower-priced satellite TV system to the business jet market later this year. The company's Tailwind 300 system will sell for around $250,000. The antenna can fit on super-midsize jets, such as the Raytheon Hawker Horizon and Cessna Citation Sovereign, airplanes for which satellite TV hasn't before been an option.
DirecTV, used by Jet Blue, will provide service for the system in the U.S., offering the full channel lineup that's available on the ground. Rockwell Collins also sells the pricier Tailwind 500 and 550, which besides DirecTV can tune in to satellite TV signals in Europe and the Middle East. Honeywell offers a competing multi-region system, the AIS-2000. The multi-region systems sell for around $500,000, a price that doesn't include the TV monitors or cabin management controls.
Flight Display Systems, a small Georgia company, is working to break the $100,000 barrier and bring "affordable" satellite TV to the market. The manufacturer is testing a satellite antenna that is identical in design to the flat phased antennas on the tops of RVs and yachts. Because the array is too wide to fit on the top of a curved aircraft fuselage, the company has designed a rather odd-looking enclosure for it that sits atop four metal stilts bolted to the airplane. The FAA has some concerns about the unconventional configuration and has told the company to perform further flight testing. As a result, it could be a while before the product is available.
3. Great-looking HDTV
Here's something you probably don't want to hear: the picture quality on that $45,000 flat-screen TV you installed in the cabin last year isn't as good as it should be. Sure, passengers comment on how great the picture looks, but that's only because they have no basis for comparison.
The truth is, the contrast ratio on current LCD and plasma displays approved for use in aircraft is less than ideal. The LCD displays suffer from motion blur, limited viewing angles and an inability to show black well. Plasma screens are susceptible to burn-in and can be negatively affected by changes in cabin pressure.
But here's the good news: at January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, manufacturers showed off HDTVs featuring much higher contrast ratios, brighter pictures and new backlighting techniques to solve many of the shortcomings of current flat-panel technology. Manufacturer Sharp demonstrated its Aquos line of LCD TVs, showing its new HD models side-by-side with the ones you can pick up today at your local Best Buy. The new models offer a contrast ratio of 2,000:1 and a dynamic ratio (the contrast between the lightest and darkest colors) of 10,000:1. The result is far richer colors, deeper blacks and, thanks to better chipsets, less pixilation of the picture during fast motion. Some manufacturers are using LED backlighting for an even better picture.
One cabin electronics insider who was at the Las Vegas show said he was impressed by the latest LCD televisions, noting that the preference for plasma TVs in aircraft has given way to the liquid crystal technology.
Sharp, Samsung, Panasonic and others are introducing new-generation LCD TVs to consumers now, meaning it will take some time before the technology finds its way into the cabin. Some anticipate new displays could bow in this fall at the National Business Aviation Association Convention in Atlanta, but even that may be too soon, considering how long it takes for products to gain government certification for use in aircraft.
The biggest surprise from the Consumer Electronics Show was the total lack of news about future flat-screen TV technologies, such as organic light-emitting diodes (OLED) and surface-conduction electron emitter displays (SED). Manufacturers explained their reticence by claiming they are focused on LCD TV for now, since competition is so fierce. Expect to hear more about the future technologies in a year or two, they said.
SED technology in particular has industry observers excited, however. It works much like a traditional CRT television, but instead of one large electron gun firing at all the screen phosphors to create the image you see, thousands of tiny electron guns known as "emitters" fire each phosphor sub-pixel. It's sort of like having a tiny CRT screen behind each pixel on the display. The advantage is a super-sharp picture without discernable motion blur, plus exceptional contrast and extremely wide viewing angles. Toshiba and Canon say they may begin joint mass production of SED TVs as early as next year, meaning a version for aircraft could be available around 2009, assuming there are no more delays.
High-definition DVD Players
The technology was a lot simpler when DVD just meant a digital video disk. Then it became a digital versatile disk, and it got somewhat more complicated. Now there's HD-DVD and Blu-ray and a battle is raging to determine which high-definition DVD technology will emerge as the market winner.
The problem is that the manufacturers can't agree on a common format for multi-layer disks that support high-definition TV technology. The debate recalls the 1980s battle of VHS versus Betamax for the standard videotape format.
Are Blu-ray and HD-DVD that much better than DVD? In a word, yes. A standard DVD can typically hold about 8.5 gigabytes, or the equivalent of one full-length movie. A Blu-ray disc can store 50 gigabytes on two layers, while HD-DVD can store 30 gigabytes, also on two layers, and both have the potential to store even more. The higher densities mean significantly higher quality screen images. And both Blu-ray and HD-DVD discs are more interactive that the standard DVD. They will allow you to review a director's comments or a video running in a small window at the same time you're watching the full-screen movie. You can also bookmark scenes and enter searches for scenes tagged with key words.
Toshiba's HD-DVD player came out in April, priced at about $500. A Blu-ray unit from Samsung debuted in June at $1,000. Of course, you could just opt for players that accept either format, like the VidaBox, priced from $5,000 to about $6,000 depending on the features. Or the BH100 from LG Electronics, priced at about $1,200. None of these has yet been approved by the FAA, however, and the cost of getting certification will add substantially to the price tags of units that can be installed in a business jet.
At this point, companies certifying and supplying DVD players for aircraft aren't jumping one way or another. One major player did confide, though not for attribution, "We think it's going to be Blu-ray." Indeed, that format currently appears to have the support of more hardware companies and film studios than HD-DVD.
Eventually, Blu-ray or HD-DVD may be declared the winner. Or perhaps combination players like the VidaBox, which can accommodate both disc types, will put an end to the race for market supremacy. At any rate, you don't have to make any quick decisions about what to put in the cabin, as neither Blu-ray nor HD-DVD players have yet been approved for in-flight use, although that will likely change soon.
Meanwhile, you can buy a new type of hybrid disk-HD-DVD on one side and DVD on the other-that will play in old DVD players. Such players will not accommodate Blu-ray disks, however. Both Blu-ray and HD-DVD units will play older DVDs, so don't toss the collection.
One last thing: to get the most out of either technology, the screen must be high-definition capable.
5. Cellphone and BlackBerry Access
It's a contentious subject among airline passengers, but in the world of business jet travel there's no argument. We want to be able to dial our own cellphones to make calls and access e-mail. The trouble is, the FCC still prohibits transmission of cellular signals from aircraft out of fear that callers in the air will interfere with those on the ground. The FAA, meanwhile, prohibits cellphone use because it might interfere with aircraft avionics.
Recent technological innovations are helping to alleviate these concerns and the FCC is considering removal of the ban in special circumstances. Companies have developed equipment that essentially turns the airplane's passenger compartment into a flying cellphone tower.
Here's how it works: A so-called "pico cell" installed in the avionics bay communicates with cellphones and BlackBerrys in the cabin. This unit instructs the personal electronics devices to revert to their lowest power settings, ensuring they won't interfere with vital aircraft sensors. It then routes cellphone calls and data signals through the airplane's satellite communications system to the ground.
Air France hopes to fly with a prototype of one such system this year to test its viability. But ironically, many of the very people the technology is intended to serve say they don't want it. Surveys have shown that airline passengers oppose lifting the ban on in-flight cellphone use, arguing that it will lead to air-rage incidents against incessant gabbers. Flight attendants' unions have come out strongly against relaxing the bans as well, contending that it will be their members who will be cast into the center of cellphone-related melees.
It remains to be seen whether this technology becomes a reality. Airlines seem to be coming around to the idea that quiet, nonintrusive text messaging and e-mail access could offer a palatable-and ultimately profitable-compromise. Once texting becomes commonplace, federal regulators and the airlines might decide to allow cellphone calling under limited circumstances, with restrictions remaining for takeoff and landing and probably at night when many passengers are sleeping. Such a relaxation of the rules would open the door for the services aboard business jets.
6. Satcom for Voice Calling
MagnaStar, the U.S.-based air-to-ground calling service operated by Verizon Airfone, is scheduled to be shut down soon, leaving about 4,000 business aircraft without a service many have praised for being inexpensive and reliable.
That leaves satellite communications as the only option for making and receiving phone calls in flight. In the world of aero satcom there are really just two choices, each with plusses and minuses.
The first-and by far the most popular-is the Inmarsat Aero satcom service. Just about every large business jet and airliner that makes international flights has such a system, which besides voice-calling capability is approved for safety-of-flight voice and data services.
There are several "levels" of Inmarsat terminals and service pricing methods. Aero-H and -H+ (high-gain antenna) are for medium-quality voice and fax/data at up to 9,600 bits per second; Aero-I (intermediate-gain antenna) is for low-quality voice and fax/data at up to 2,400 bits per second; and Aero-L (low-gain antenna) is primarily for "packet data," including a text-messaging service used by the airlines called Acars. Aero-H satcom calls cost about $10 a minute and can be made worldwide, except over the Poles.
The competing service is Iridium. You may know that name from the failed Motorola satellite venture of the late 1990s. It's the same business, rescued from bankruptcy and operated as a niche satcom services provider rather than the multibillion-dollar giant Motorola sought to create. The advantages of Iridium over Inmarsat are lower call charges (about $1.50 a minute), true global coverage that includes the Poles, lower hardware costs and smaller, lighter onboard equipment. The drawbacks are so-so voice quality, no option for high-speed Internet and a complicated constellation of satellites that will run out of fuel and cease to operate by around 2014. Iridium is already planning its next-generation constellation, which will offer improved sound quality and may include high-speed data services.
7. iPod and MP3 Player Integration
Just a few years ago, iPods and MP3 players were considered gizmos for kids and the question of whether they might interface with a business aircraft entertainment system wouldn't have arisen. Not anymore. According to completion and refurbishment centers, virtually every airplane being rolled out now has at least an iPod or MP3 docking station. One center recalled a customer who wanted an iPod docking station at every seat.
With Lufthansa Technik's Nice digital cabin management and in-flight entertainment system, there is a docking station that streams the audio output. You can hear the digitally distributed signal on a headset at a specific seat or over the cabin speaker system. You can also control the iPod at a seat through a graphical user interface, choosing and creating playlists or playing, stopping and pausing songs, just as if the iPod were in your hand. Nice is already being installed in several airplanes, according to the avionics sales manager at Midcoast Aviation, which Lufthansa Technik selected as the system's only independent North American sales and service outlet.
8. Noise-canceling Headphones
Many frequent fliers have discovered that they don't even have to be plugged in to an audio source to benefit from headphones. Simply having them on can discourage unwanted conversations and, if the headphones are of the active-noise-canceling variety and are turned on, they can alleviate fatigue by greatly reducing ambient sound. They do their job via a microphone that picks up sound waves from outside, determines their frequencies and rather effectively cancels them by creating exactly opposite waves.
Bose's QuietComfort II headphones (about $300) feature the newest variant of noise-canceling technology and work well with both low- and high-frequency noise cancellation. A disadvantage is that when the batteries die, the unit becomes useless, as it must have power for the audio feed.
Other models worth considering include JVC's HA-NC100-J/C (about $79), for which the manufacturer claims battery life of about 50 hours; Plane Quiet's NC6 (about $80), which is powered by a single AAA battery that provides up to 14 hours of use, and Sennheiser's PXC 300 (less than $200), which the manufacturer says will reduce "unwanted noise" by 80 percent.
In reviews of active noise-cancellation headphones, no one unit appears to be an obvious winner. All come with accessories such as plug adapters that will allow use with laptop computers, airplane audio and other audio systems.
9. Digital Moving Map Displays
These displays have come a long way from the days when the map appeared to have been copied from a third-grade geography textbook. As the technology improved, the displays began to show time aloft, speed and arrival time. Then manufacturers added multiple languages, along with pre-flight and arrival audiovisual announcements, followed by a touch-screen on which viewers could check real-time stock reports, sports scores and news.
Lufthansa Technik took a quantum leap a little more than two years ago with the introduction of AirTrack, in partnership with TEAC Aerospace of Montebelloe, Calif. Unlike previous displays, AirTrack used satellite imagery to create what Lufthansa described as a "3-D, detailed topographical map." The aircraft image superimposed over the terrain was of the user's own business jet and could even show its paint scheme and company logo.
More recently, Honeywell's JetMap II added high-resolution maps of major cities and sites such as the Hoover Dam and the Eiffel Tower; the ability to interface with just about any elements of the cabin system; and a choice of touch-screen or remote control. Other JetMap II functions include maps that show areas in sunlight and darkness; indications of nearby cities and points of interest; and a night graphics setting for darkened cabins.
Flight Display Systems is about to introduce improvements to its own moving map computer processing unit, which offers NASA satellite imagery. According to a spokesman, it's "an all-new box," with a new processing unit, more memory, upgraded software and no moving parts.
10. Cabin Management Systems
Technophiles use the term "convergence" to describe the merging of several technologies into a single device, foisting the Swiss Army knife concept onto portable electronics.
In the future, most people will probably use just a single handheld piece of equipment to make calls, take and store photos and videos, listen to music, retrieve e-mail, surf the Internet, navigate to Grandma's house and heaven knows what else.
Apple's forthcoming iPhone is the most recent example of the phenomenon. In its case, several functions have been merged into one easy-to-use communications device, offering iPod music storage, Wi-Fi Internet connection (not the cumbersome mobile WAP Internet offered on most phones), e-mail access, photo and video and multi-touch display screen technologies, all in one unit. Add-on software and hardware peripherals from third-party suppliers will enhance the product's usefulness, its maker claims.
Convergence also applies to the world of aircraft cabin electronics. As control over various technologies and functions are merged into single devices next to each seat, the passenger compartment is becoming a local area network unto itself, with each device and seat position a node on the network. The development of powerful cabin management systems such as Rockwell Collins' Airshow 21 and Honeywell's Ovation E offer a means by which all cabin functions, including entertainment and lighting, are tied together to give passengers and crew control over it all.
The latest integrated cabin management systems on the market include passenger touch screens that provide control over most any function, from lowering the window shades to changing TV channels.