No doubt many of you have installed a simple router in your home or office- and might be wondering how someone can commit an article focused solely on the router? Just hold that thought for a moment. I assure you that by the time you finish this article you will be amazed at the myriad of features offered by today’s leading aviation routers.
Pilot on phone in cockpit
Aviation Routers - They’re Smarter than you Think...
Routers have been on-board business aircraft for years- but only recently have they evolved into an intelligent device capable of controlling almost every system in the cabin. Many operators over the last few years have outfitted their aircraft with connectivity- and no doubt this included installing a simple router to allow passengers to connect their Personal Electronic Devices (PEDs) to the internet. During the same time frame there has been a noticeable drop-off in the number of In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) upgrades in the cabin.
Research indicates that most passengers are content with simple internet browsing- email access and the ability to watch a pre-recorded TV episode or movie stored on their PED.
One thing we know about the consumer - in this case our passengers - is that they continually want access to the latest technologies; what is hot one day is often old news the next. The airlines know this very well and spend millions of dollars to have the latest technologies that could give them a competitive edge in this industry known for razor-thin margins.
This same principle applies to Business Aviation- especially in the brokerage and charter segments of our industry. I have first-hand accounts of fellow passengers seeking airlines that offer leading technologies over competitor airlines who don’t; fractional companies- aircraft brokerages and charter companies are entangled in the same competitive web. And- thus- Maintenance- Repair and Outfitting (MRO) facilities - especially the Interior and Avionics divisions - perpetually seek opportunities to present new technologies and products to their clients.
The ‘Humble’ Router
Today’s routers might have some technologies and features that are familiar to you:
• Wi-Fi 802.11 b- g- n
But the ‘humble’ router does so much more- and all of them are scalable to fit your needs both for today as well as tomorrow. Although not all the routers we are going to cover have all the following features- they do have unique capabilities that qualified them for this article. When you visualize the word router- you may never have considered they are capable of the following:
• Media Server ‘Center’ (Movies- TV shows);
• Streaming content;
• Moving Maps;
• Intelligent traffic control – allows simultaneous use of different satellite connections;
• 3G/4G GSM Connectivity (SIM card slots);
• IFE control;
• Control Cabin MGT (lights- window shades- cabin temperature- galley);
• Video Surveillance.
The Chinese celebrate 2014 as ‘The Year of the Horse’; I for one consider this ‘The Year of the Router’. I firmly believe the following vendors with their new deliveries of Aviation Routers provide a cost effective solution to rejuvenate the cabin of your business aircraft.
Satcom Direct Router (SDR)
The SDR is the first certified hardware product delivered by the company known as the leader in voice and data services. Having one of the best customer supports in the industry has its benefits- and Satcom Direct turned this into an opportunity.
After hearing complaints about connections being dropped and operators having to log onto different IP protocols- it designed its router to use multiple satellite connections simultaneously. Whether you have SwiftBroadBand (SBB)- Iridium- Ku-Band or the upcoming Ka-Band- Satcom’s intelligent router has you covered.
Custom Applications like its trademark Aero “V” allow passengers to make calls to and from the aircraft using their own smartphone. The passenger only needs to download the App and activate the Wi-Fi on their phone- and they are ‘good to go’. Aero “X” is another popular feature that increases the bandwidth by up to 400% allowing SB-200 systems with data speeds limited to 200Kbps to reach peak speeds of 1 Mbps.
The router also has full Private Branch Exchange (PBX) functionality allowing call-forwarding; three-way conference calling; multiple handsets; and annunciating for incoming calls. An internal 3G/4G Cellular Module and remote antenna provide worldwide voice and data coverage while on the ground. This allows a more cost effective way to download heavy files like cockpit charts or social media; both of which are usually blocked in-flight by your service provider. Remote maintenance access and software updates can also be accomplished faster and cheaper.
Sample Airplane Types: Learjet 60 and GIV/IV-SP recent STC- Falcon 900- Gulfstream G450/ G550- Challenger series.
The eConnect line of products from Emteq enhances the standard connectivity features by incorporating IFE functionality into the router. Titled EasyHD- this solution can function as a standalone High Definition (HD) entertainment system or integrate directly to the system currently on board your aircraft.
Versatile by design- the unit will work with your existing switch panels and wiring reducing both down-time and costs. Additionally- the unit has Cabin Management System (CMS) functionality that allows your PED to control lighting- temperature- window shades and the galley. The eConnect was developed with a universal HTML5 interface that works nicely with many operating systems- including Apple; Android; Windows; Blackberry (and more).
Housing one Terra Byte of storage for Audio Video on Demand (AVOD) and a 2D moving map- passengers can stream content directly to their PED or view a movie or TV show on an existing monitor. Content can be stored on the file server so passengers can share movies- business documents and even a PowerPoint presentation. Media can be transferred through the ultra-fast 802.11 a/b/n 2.4GHz Wi-Fi or the full speed USB 2.0.
Sample Airplane Types: Bombardier Challengers & Globals; Gulfstreams (GIVs/GVs); Hawker 400; Pilatus PC-12.
Vision Systems Visibox
Vision Systems- based in Brignais- France has introduced a compact 2MCU unit titled VisiBox. Small in size yet powerful and dynamic- this unit is capable of providing standard router functionality coupled with CMS- IFE and video components. Utilizing catchy subtitles like VisiMedia- VisiStream and VisiEye- this packaged solution can fit into business aircraft.
VisiMedia and VisiStream combine to allow passengers access to video and audio content; moving maps; safety briefings; and external camera views from up to three different zones- and in different languages. User-friendly- custom- designed Graphical User Interface (GUI) icons loaded on your PED gives passengers a clear and easy way to select what content they want to view. Connectivity is part of VisiMedia covering internet; Wi-Fi; email; and voice solutions.
VisiEye is a real-time fully digital video surveillance system similar to what you see in a home or an office. Integration of internal and external cameras allows simultaneous viewing of four cameras on the same screen. One application even showed an external camera view superimposed on the moving map display.
Sample Airplane Types: Falcons; BBJs; airliners.
ICG has introduced a new trio of routers. For this article- we focus on the ERT-120 model. The name indicates both a sense of pride and confidence that ICG got it right: ERT stands for Enhanced Routing Technology. Forgoing any ties to IFE and CMS (at least for now)- the engineering team at ICG feels its concentrated effort on defining the standard router descriptions has paid off. Although the following features are not unique to ICG or the ERT-120- the scalability and flexibility of the design can make this unit fit any aircraft configuration.
User Management provides validation- security and prioritization control for passengers and allows the router to be configured so that a certain user or user-group would get priority bandwidth when connecting to the system.
I believe the simplest way to understand this would be to look at a typical VIP widebody aircraft: Usually these aircraft have separate cabins for the VIP personnel and the other passengers. Priority routing would identify who just logged on and provide them with the best connection- bandwidth and security protocols. The sophistication of the router allows it to match the connecting device with the logon ID and prevent someone who compromised the ID from entering the system.
For business aircraft flying the company CEO and CFO who have access to the company domain through a Virtual Private Network (VPN)- security is imperative. We can all relate to the exposure and danger associated with Wi-Fi and networks. Just think about how many times you activate the Wi-Fi on your device and multiple networks are found with no encryption or logon required. The same thing can happen to your aircraft while it sits at the FBO waiting for the cabin occupants to arrive!
Couple these features with a router that ensures an acceptable Quality of Service (QoS) level and seamless transition from network-to-network is transparent to the end-user- you have a very smart device.
Sample Airplane Types: Falcons; Gulfstreams; Challengers.
The Universal Cabin Server (UCS) introduced by Aircell combines both a smart router and a dynamic media server. This combination brings connectivity- IFE and information services to the cabin in a unique way. The smart router delivers everything from Wi-Fi to an internal 4G modem; including PBX functionality and control of voice and data over multiple networks. A single log-on allows the user to access everything in the cabin including all the networks- internet- voice and even ancillary devices like a printer.
The 4G modem can also be used on the ground to upload weather and the latest news to the hard-drive that can be viewed later inflight. This means that if the aircraft were to land to refuel or the trip had multiple stops- the information would be refreshed when on the ground.
The media server does allow users to share and store files- but the real operational marvel is Gogo Vision. This entertainment service delivers on-demand movies- TV shows and flight information to the passengers. Content is stored on the media server and streamed to your personal device anywhere in the cabin. The content truly is the latest releases and material to date.
Coupled with Gogo Cloud- the UCS-5000 eliminates the time consuming task (and frustration) of trying to copy and load content yourself. By utilizing a revolutionary Wi-Fi bridge connection at a participating FBO the new content is loaded automatically into the server. Flight departments can also purchase the equipment and become Cloud-approved to update their own aircraft.
A third option is to have a loaded USB drive sent to your location; meaning you simply plug the drive into the USB port and it loads automatically. Keep in mind that you will have to have some type of datalink onboard like an Aircell Air to Ground (ATG) or SBB system to authenticate the content.
Sample Airplane Types: King Air 300; Embrears; Falcons; Citations; BBJs; Gulfstreams.
STCs and Ancillary Costs
Installation of the routers covered in this article or any other router that incorporates Wi-Fi will require an approved Supplement Type Certificate (STC) by the local regulatory authority. For operators that choose to add the option for streaming content- be aware that your router must provide 802.11(n)- which delivers the required bandwidth and data rates. Most legacy routers onboard today’s business jet fleet only have 802.11 (b) or (g)- which do not support streaming. The good news is that all these companies offer incentives to their dealers for first-of-type certification and many STCs are currently in process.
Pricing for the standard router capabilities is quite comparable- but like any commodity once you start to add the extra features they come with a cost. Activation of Gogo Vision will require a one-time software key purchase along with a monthly fee for the loading of content- and a surcharge for each movie and TV show. Ordering a customized VisiBox or eConnect router that provides IFE and CMS capabilities will quickly add costs that could approach the price of the original router.
3G/4G connectivity on the ground will carry a monthly fee for limited voice and data services- too. Moving maps are considered an upgrade with most of the companies reporting availability later in 2014. Although one vendor stated the map is included in their standard pricing- you can be assured that the more sophisticated maps will come with additional cost.
Routers will continue to evolve and add features and benefits for the crew- maintenance departments and passengers. Some of the possibilities we could see very soon includes:
• Flight Data Monitoring;
• Engine Parameters;
• System Diagnostics;
• Medical Vitals (Air Ambulance);
• Database Updates.
We often see words like ‘flexible’- ‘scalable’ and ‘upgradeable’ used to describe new products. Today’s aviation routers fit those descriptions like a glove. Take the time to find the right unit that matches both your pricepoint and business objective- but make sure you plan your “route” for the future.