Cabin Electronics: What's the Best Way to Upgrade? (Part 3)

Ken Elliott reviews cabin electronics upgrades with a focus on retrofit. This final part in the series addresses the product, and should be helpful to buyers, brokers, integrators and others…

Ken Elliott  |  25th September 2020
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Ken Elliott
Ken Elliott

Ken Elliott is a veteran with 52 years of aviation experience, focussed on avionics in General and Business...

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Large business jet cabin with empty seat and monitor

The intent of this article is not to recommend a specific product or provide comparisons, but instead to prepare the aircraft owner for an understanding of the need for, and scope of, generic products in the cabin environment.

Modern aircraft tend to be delivered with factory-standard cabin electronics, where the providers of cabin systems have a certain exclusivity with the aircraft manufacturer. Older used aircraft will be less likely to have a standard factory solution.

Where it is available, it may be wise for owners to review the aircraft factory offerings with regard to future cabin upgrades. Even though factory solutions may cost more, they’re likely to be well thought-out and fully integrated to existing systems, including the cockpit avionics.

When stepping aboard a typical business jet, first impressions are everything. Interior designers go to great lengths to ensure the look and feel of the cabin will not only impress, but make you feel safe and relaxed.

When it comes to the cabin electronics, passengers will focus on where and how their senses interact. So for now, at least, that will involve audio, visual and touch…

How cabin electronics impact passenger senses

Audio

The first impression relating to audio is that it needs to be a personal experience, without aberration and faithfully mirroring its source. Passenger address from the cockpit requires a speaker. Other than that, or unless the complete cabin is intended for a singular experience, speakers are not such a big deal anymore.

The personal desires and focus of each passenger will be different, and is accommodated through the individual control of their audio and visual selections. If Bluetooth is available, personal headsets can now be brought on board without the need for cables and phone jacks.

When an aircraft passenger takes their seat, they are likely to want to access their own headset with a personal device to immerse themselves in an individual activity. However, from an audio perspective there are three characteristics unique to the aircraft experience:

  • Your audio will be interrupted by passenger address info, directly on your headset.
  • With Air to Ground (ATG) you may not use voice and data below 10,000ft. One exception is GoGo, which has provided internet capability above 3,000 feet (particularly useful for short duration flights).
  • Cabin voice calls cannot be made using cellular networks. Voice calls are either via a Satcom, when installed, or using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) when the internet and Wi-Fi are active.

Visual

If a monitor or display is turned on and showing a video source, it will draw the attention of the passengers. If it is turned off, and therefore unlit, it will need to blend in to the background. Selecting monitors is a decision to be influenced by capability and aesthetics.

Equally, anywhere from the entry way to the aft vanity suite/unit, if the various zones of the cabin are lit they will draw the same attention. But when unlit the lamps & fittings should be discreetly concealed. The visual experience of entertainment can include the use of both aircraft displays and personal devices.

Touch

Tactile cabin interaction is all about functionality, human factors and aesthetics. As with lighting and displays, the control and switching should subtly blend in to side ledges and Passenger Service Units (PSUs).

Cabin Electronics Sub Systems

Pretty much anything that invokes an interaction in the cabin has an electronic aspect to it. Even existing aircraft systems, like oxygen, water or temperature control, use an electronic switch with some form of associated digital-to-analogue interface.

Existing airframe systems still require motors, relays, mechanical switches and control boxes.

Modern cabin upgrades, being digital, need additional interface and adaptation to different forms of technology. When selecting for your next cabin upgrade, be sure to involve the completion center to satisfy the proper marriage of new cabin controls to existing airframe systems. A seamless integration is always desirable.

From a product selection perspective, each of the subsystems listed in Table A (below) have important considerations, especially regarding integration. Following, we will summarize some of these…

Table depicting the different sub-systems of aircraft cabin electronics

Cockpit Integration

For safety, the cockpit must always have a means of isolating primary power from the cabin in case of any power-related emergency. Some legacy aircraft were not wired this way meaning it may need to be added.

Cockpits must also be able to communicate with the cabin for announcements. These will interrupt personal devices and in-use aircraft entertainment. So, upgrades should not overlook the Passenger Address interface.

Both the cockpit and cabin will likely share Air to Ground (ATG) and Satcom systems for both voice and data activity. For product selection, anticipation of cockpit and cabin utilization will be helpful. Modern cockpits are using more and more data, placing greater demand on communication devices.

Main Cabin and Galley Lighting

Today, there is so much choice with aircraft cabin lighting. Some lighting providers specialize in updating incandescent and fluorescent lamps to LED. However, do not be fooled by the appearance of simplicity with respect to the update…

Each lamp (or group of lamps) has its own power source, taking either AC or DC aircraft power and converting to the specific lamp voltage. These converters will be buried behind the galley or in another ‘hard to access’ location. Even wiring may need to be replaced.

When considering lighting, try to envisage a passenger’s first impression, the impact of lights across different cabin zones, and who will have the control.

Having indirect and reveal lighting is always preferable to direct, unless for reading use. Closets for storage, cabinets and drawers should all be well lit when needed. And it is necessary that the lighting controls themselves are located sensibly. Figure B (below) demonstrates the potential complexity of cabin lighting. The ‘switchology’ can quickly become confusing as more lights are added.

Existing Airframe & Cabin Related Services

Some examples in which cabin electronics will need to digitally control existing systems include:

  • Galley & Cabin Services
  • Temperature & Air
  • Entryway/Vestibule Lighting
  • Air Stair
  • Jump Seat
  • Temperature Control
  • Lavatory
  • Vanity
  • Passenger Service Units (PSU)

Some larger jets employ a cabin attendant, while others rely on the passengers to help themselves at the galley. The galley is considered a work area, but because it may form part of the entryway, or be prominent, but it must conceal its ‘workings’ with features and controls mounted discreetly.

When there is an attendant, the jump seat will be occupied and from there, the air stair and entryway dome light may be controlled. A typical cockpit headset is needed for a jump seat location. Attention can be alerted from and between the cockpit, jump seat, galley and individual cabin call buttons.

In business jets, the VIP seat position may permit extra functions such as master temperature control for the cabin or operation of window blinds. The preferred selection of functions from this panel and another, typically near the divan location, is crucial for product selection criteria, partially because of integration with existing analogue systems.

Vanity lighting in the lavatory area is a special selection as you may be adapting to a unique voltage source. The supplier will need to know what already exists, in advance. The lavatory itself will need to flush, and a new digital switch, to match the overall upgrade, will need to adapt to the existing flush motor control.

If you are changing cabin lighting to LED, now is the time to consider any other changes to sub-assemblies, such as PSUs. One example will be LED reading and table lights.

The typical lighting installed in a mid-size jet cabin

Cabin Entertainment

AC Power & USB Ports: Each seat location, including at the divan, will require an individual power source for carry on devices. These are currently low voltage USB ports and are better if backlit.

Cabins need AC power for commercial devices, for ground and flight use. Some are power hungry, so do ensure outlets with sufficient electrical current capability are provided. Because of their secure messaging, fax machine provisions combined within an on board printer, should be considered. Ensure AC outlets are ground fault interrupted (GFI).

Wi-Fi Routing: Internet access can be provided via hard-wired Ethernet or as wireless, using Wi-Fi routing. Both serve as the connection to the internet. The aircraft, in effect, becomes a hotspot allowing multiple users.

Routing equipment selection should be matched with the bandwidth, speed and level of security required for both cabin and cockpit.

Bluetooth: For the cabin Bluetooth is now the preferred wireless connection between personal headsets and associated entertainment devices. Bluetooth provisions can save you on wiring (both headset plug-ins and aircraft cables). Information via Bluetooth is bi-directional, so include Bluetooth transmitters and receivers with their own selection capability.

Entertainment & Data Content: Typically preloaded, data content is not dependent upon the internet. Offering an HDMI port on the aircraft side will allow passengers to interface video playing devices to cabin displays. Video monitor and major cabin system providers are a source for content when not downloaded directly from the internet or via satellite TV.

Cabin Switching & Management: Functional control of cabin systems is key to maximizing the utilization of cabin electronics. Placement and tactile interface deserve careful deliberation. Also, functionality with selection priority by seat location are important deliberations.

Besides the switch selection and control of a function, passengers need to know that the selection has actually been made. This is achieved via feedback confirmation. This can be as simple as a green light within the selection switch itself.

Always allow for growth in cabin management, including likely improvements in technology (such as the onset and migration of 5G technology).

Video: As with audio, video originates at different sources. Today, using their personal carry-on devices, more passengers rely on an ability to view internet-derived content. However, a well-placed monitor or two will still be a plus, especially in cases where carry-on equipment is discouraged.

The order and priority of video source selection requires careful thought, based on how the cabin will be utilized. The size and layout of the cabin will ultimately define the detail of video switching.

Choosing, and installing noise-free video displays should also be a priority, or extensive troubleshooting may be necessary. Satcom & ATG (TV/Data/Internet/Voice): For a typical flight, and assuming an upgrade will include both Satcom and ATG for worldwide coverage, the aircraft owner may want to deal with the points highlighted in Table B (above).

Once completed and working with a vendor, establish the speed and bandwidth necessary to satisfy all of them. Also select products based on latency specifications, because data delay can be frustrating. Companies (such as GoGo) are now offering incentives to be ‘system ready’ for 5G via ATG. There is no doubt that 5G will be transformative and it makes sense to equip forward if the budget permits.

Outside the cabin, data handling capability should include, or be up-gradable for, real-time maintenance tracking, flight monitoring, and real-time physical tracking of the aircraft.

Audio: For the cabin there are three different audios to consider. These include:

  • Passenger headset
  • Passenger speaker
  • Cockpit passenger address

Passenger headsets will monitor audio associated with on board video and carry on-device content. If there are remaining cabin-installed audio sources (such as DVD and stored digital music) they will need to be accommodated. Audio should be high fidelity and free of any interference, while easy to select.

Regular passenger(s) may desire to use their own headsets. Audio vendors should know the preferred headsets to ensure you purchase products that are ideally suited to the passengers. With audio, as well as video, placement of speakers and Bluetooth audio routing selections are crucial.

Service Provider: If your cabin management system and entertainment is from Collins Aerospace or Honeywell (can be listed as an aircraft OEM solution), it makes sense to use their preferred Service Provider (SP).

However, many cabins are not so integrated, and there will be several SP options available. Apart from the cost of services, the level of security provided by the SP is important. On-board executives consider it essential to have tamper-free, two-way, data and communication. Companies like Satcom Direct, make it their business to focus on cyber-security, because they realize how crucial it is in today’s environment.

By engaging your SP early on regarding anything Satcom-/ATG-related, you will be well placed for the product selection best suited to your operation.

How to work out business jet cabin electronics data and communication needs

In Summary…

Within this three-part series we have emphasized the importance of planning and preparation for a cabin upgrade. Where aircraft are equipped with OEM standard cabin management systems it is wise to start with them to consider what is available. (For example, software updates alone can be a ‘vendor-OEM-only’ provision.)

Examples of installation considerations and product selection criteria should arm an aircraft owner or operator with some of the tools necessary for negotiating the cabin electronics that are best for you.

Keep in mind there are systems to suit every budget and operating environment. Envisage the cabin in its normal flight configuration, then work closely (and early) with vendors, your completion facility of choice, and your selected SP. This will ensure a satisfactory passenger experience when the aircraft returns to service.

Read Cabin Electronics: What's the Best Way to Upgrade (Part 1)

Read Cabin Electronics: What's the Best Way to Upgrade (Part 2)

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Read More About: Cabin Avionics | Cabin Connectivity | Avionics Retrofits | Cabin Lights | Cabin Management Systems

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