Wired World

Wired World

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Goodbye cables and buttons, hello touch and wireless. Maryann Simson keeps on top of digital cabin trends in a fast-moving market for suppliers and MROs

No matter the cabin configuration onboard a medium to large VIP aircraft, one element is consistently present – the CMS, or cabin management system.

The CMS is the central nervous system of an executive cabin. It constitutes an electronic infrastructure, receiving and processing information and relaying critical messages. The CMS controls functions enabling passenger comfort, interaction, entertainment and, of
course, productivity.

In commercial aviation, the CMS and in-flight entertainment/connectivity (IFEC) systems are separate entities, often coming from different suppliers. The passenger is in control of his reading light and entertainment or internet connection, but the flight crew manages the broader aircraft environment through a separate system and interface (the CMS). In the VIP jet world, CMS and IFEC are inextricably linked. A VIP aircraft owner desires control over his or her complete environment at all times, from dimmable lighting, automated window shades and temperature, to entertainment and broadband connectivity settings.

Avionics juggernauts Rockwell Collins and Honeywell Aerospace have traditionally dominated the CMS/IFEC space in executive aviation. But today new players are also making inroads, with nimble CMS configurations and “add-on” IFEC systems.

In a shifting landscape one thing is for certain: Technology waits for no man and innovation is tantamount to survival.

Ovation Select

In 2003, Honeywell Aerospace acquired Baker Electronics Inc., a Sarasota-based supplier of CMS solutions to the VIP aviation sector. Today,  Honeywell’s CMS-related operations are still based out of Florida, but the systems they produce now have changed considerably.

Honeywell launched the fully-digital Ovation Select CMS architecture in 2011 to replace legacy solutions, which relied largely on analog (think VHS players and CRT monitors). This new digital framework for IFE and other systems has been installed on more than 100 aircraft and enables the introduction of modern passenger-facing components, like HD monitors, HDMI inputs and mobile device-based cabin control interfacing.

Ovation Select is scalable across a wide of business aircraft including both wide and narrow bodies from Boeing and Airbus, the Falcon 900 and 7X, Gulfstream’s 450s and 550s, plus the Bombardier’s Global Express family. It is line-fit across Embraer’s 540, 500 and Lineage models.

Honeywell likes to keep an eye on adjacent market developments to ensure its engineers are abreast of the latest digital trends. “We’re sure to be aware of what is coming down the line in telematics (automotive connectivity) and consumer electronics,” explains Justin Dye, director of marketing and CMS product management at Honeywell. “Those two become important because the experience an owner has on the aircraft cannot be any less than what they get in the car or at home. Things like Android Auto and Apple CarPlay have become interesting to us because lots of car makers have picked those up – it’s standardising the dashboard and introduces the concept of liquid computing, or truly seamless handoff between home, car, office etc.”

Since launch, continual upgrades have been made to Ovation Select. “The system that we’re installing today is more reliable than the system we came out with in 2011,” explains Dye. “It’s gotten easier to install, the electronics boxes aren’t as noisy and the experience has been optimised with new wireless technology as it comes down the pipe.”

Dye notes that owners want increasingly to use their own PED (personal electronic device) to manage all the system’s features and to play their own content across aircraft monitors and speakers.

“We support full cabin control via Android and iOS device. If you’ve got content on your phone or tablet, you can interface with Ovation Select through a set-top box,” he says. “If you’ve got a library of movies that you want to upload to the aircraft server for storage and playback, we will be launching a product around mid-2016 for that.”

Honeywell is the exclusive hardware supplier and a service provider for Inmarsat’s forthcoming Jet ConneX (JX) Ka-band inflight connectivity solution.

Venue HD

Venue from Rockwell Collins
Venue from Rockwell Collins

Over in the Rockwell Collins camp, Venue HD sales are humming along. With more than 600 system installations on nearly every OEM platform since its 2007 launch, the Venue CMS/IFEC system has proven itself a favourite for many aircraft types and sizes. The system is OEM line-fit with Textron, Dassault and Bombardier, and 160 authorised dealers are currently selling the system into the retrofit and custom completion markets.

“Venue provides both cabin management and entertainment, all in one. By having both together as one system, operators do not have to piecemeal one together. This provides seamless and consistent operation for the owners,” says Mark Zimmerman, director of business jet programs and products at Rockwell Collins.

“The fundamental architecture remains intact, but Venue has evolved in the past eight years as well. We continue to add both hardware and software features. Some of these include personal touchscreens, the ability to stream DRM [digital rights managed] content to devices, and apps which control the cabin environment.”

In 2012, Rockwell Collins introduced an exciting new Venue feature called Skybox (installed about more than 50 aircraft), which enables passengers to play content stored in the system’s library on up to 10 Apple iOS devices. Passengers can likewise stream movies, photos or business documents from their devices to cabin displays using the product.

“Streaming on the aircraft is here to stay,” says Zimmerman. “Even our popular 3D interactive maps are available as Airshow Mobile for iOS and Airshow Mobile for Android. We will launch our new Airshow Mobile for browsers soon – it’s a version of the map designed for basic streaming without the need to download an app.”

Rockwell Collins has also just launched Airshow 500, which is designed to upgrade traditional Airshow 400 and 410 moving map products. It has many standard features that were options on previous Airshow products.

Venue interfaces agnostically to various connectivity sources, from Iridium to SwiftBroadband and Ku. Like Honeywell, Rockwell Collins is a Jet ConneX reseller and will offer JX broadband services via ARINC Direct.  

IDAIR

IDAIR

A relative newcomer to the industry, IDAIR is based in Hamburg Germany and is a joint venture between Lufthansa Technik AG (providing Ethernet-based CMS and IFE system nice® in the business jet sector since 2003) and Panasonic Avionics, the world leader in IFEC solution for commercial aviation.

“IDAIR was established in April 2011 and as of today we have approximately 25 installations, including several deliveries of systems and integrations on two 747-8,” explains Craig Depner, president and CTO at IDAIR. “IDAIR benefits from the historical expertise of the parent companies in the commercial airline and business jet market, as well as combined research and development activities.”

In the commercial aviation Ku market, Panasonic Avionics’ eXConnect global connectivity solutions – utilizing global network of Ku-band satellites – is a clear market leader in terms of both line-fit and after-market installation (customers include Emirates, Etihad, Turkish Airlines, Gulf Air and Cathay Pacific). Like it’s parent Panasonic, IDAIR has proven adept at developing intuitive user interfaces for entertainment systems, integrating mobile functionality and licensing popular content from major Hollywood studios.

This know-how, paired with Lufthansa Technik’s reliable nice® CMS infrastructure, creates a novel alternative to the traditional suppliers mentioned above.

Like many others, Depner sees the trend towards a wireless cabin as one not to be ignored. Accordingly, IDAIR has developed a studio/DRM approved wireless streaming system which they see as a major differentiator. Obtaining this type of DRM approval is no simple feat, as video piracy is a threat the film studios take all too seriously. 

“IDAIR is the first IFE/CMS system in the VVIP market that is studio approved and capable of handling such DRM protection,” says Depner.

IDAIR’s solutions are fully customisable and can be scaled to fit narrow body aircraft, such as the A320 or B737, right up to jumbos like the A380 and B747-8.

MRO Magic

CMS architecture is buried deep within the guts of the aircraft. As such, system selection and subsequent upgrades or replacements are never taken lightly. Sure, it’s easy enough to swap out certain components like a faulty monitor, media player, AC power outlet or PCU (personal control unit) for like equipment; but a truly comprehensive upgrade or supplier switch requires intensive work. This is where the role of the MRO becomes critical.

Duncan Aviation

“IFE systems are almost always done with other major work on the aircraft. A complete CMS upgrade is a significant installation and it makes sense to complete one with a major airframe inspection or interior refurbishment where the aircraft will be down and interior removed,” explains Steve Elofson, avionics installations and sales at Duncan, the world’s largest privately owned business jet support facility.

“Our sales, dedicated in-house engineering and installation technicians have the experience and technical knowledge to make the right choices and complete a project to exact specifications.”

According to Elofson, Honeywell’s Ovation Select and Rockwell’s Venue HD platforms are the two most popular CMS/IFEC systems among Duncan customers. Though the MRO has yet to install any of Lufthansa’s solutions as retrofit, he does anticipate that recent nice® HD upgrades will be popular when available.

“We’re moving away from button type switching throughout the cabin, which is being replaced by wireless and touch screen controls,” he adds. “HD and HD capable devices are driving trends in IFE, but very few business aircraft are HD capable due to the older CMS systems necessitating a complete upgrade in most cases. Moving Map programs such as Airshow and JetMap displayed on bulkhead monitors and on tablet devices is another growing trend. As internet connectivity speeds increase and service pricing comes down, we expect [internet] video streaming services coming to aircraft. This will be an exciting step forward for bizav IFE.”

Elliott Aviation

Elliott

With a diverse portfolio of aviation services (from sales and appraisals to maintenance, FBO and charter sales support) and three main locations in the US mid-west, Elliott Aviation is also a popular choice for aircraft owners seeking counsel and expertise on CMS and IFE.

Elliott is an approved vendor and installation house for both Venue HD and Ovation Select, and will explain to customers the virtues and potential drawbacks of each.

“Typically an owner as a general idea as to what they are looking for prior to an inquiry,” says Conrad Thiesen, director of avionics sales at Elliott. “We start there, then work with the client to custom tailor a CMS to their needs. This is typically a several-week process that occurs well before the airplane arrives at our facility for the upgrade.”

The Venue HD system seems to be prevailing as CMS-of-choice for Elliott Aviation clients. This might be attributable to the Venue systems ability to integrate with more different aircraft models and formalised procedures like a customer-approved specification sheet, which precedes the creation of specialised software.

“Cabin connectivity is increasingly the top item our clients want, we are installing more and more USB charge ports for the PEDs that the customer is bringing onboard,” says Thiesen. “Individual cabin monitors and switching at seat locations are a thing of the past.”