- 13 Apr 2022
- Brian Wilson
- Jet Connectivity
Ken Elliott reviews new Business Aviation avionics for corporate aircraft cabins, including several important considerations beside the products themselves...Back to Articles
Cabin electronics cannot be experienced in isolation, and when an aircraft has been modified in piecemeal stages, it shows. When an owner enters the cabin it has to feel right. There should be a singular feeling of satisfaction – and today’s discerning buyer and savvy seller know exactly what that means.
Where possible, upgrade the cabin electronics in conjunction with lighting and interior. A side benefit of which is easier access to hidden wiring and components, when interior panels, furnishings and headliners are removed for the wider upgrade.
In the past, cabins of all sizes were equipped to provide business tools and entertainment throughout for passengers who boarded with nothing other than a briefcase and Walkman. That has since evolved into passengers providing their own individualized experiences, using personal devices, while being virtually connected to the cabin.
However, new aircraft seem to remain a few steps behind the latest high-tech innovation on the street. That’s because corporate aircraft take years to develop and bring to market.
The engineering, design and approval of cabin systems cannot be a last-minute addition, so by the time initial aircraft production begins, the avionics, including cabin systems, may lag by up to five years.
Ironically, some legacy pre-owned aircraft are flying with later technology than new production aircraft. Upgrades to pre-owned aircraft takes less time to engineer and certify, and may only apply to a single serial number, rather than a complete production run.
A further challenge for new aircraft to remain ahead of the pack results from them having a Cabin Management System (CMS). Traditionally, these were complex, integrated systems which were cumbersome to update and prone to obsolescence. The situation has improved lately, as OEM designers actively seek to future-proof their CMS designs.
Overall, CMSs remain at an advantage, providing the blended cabin experience that comes with a completely integrated system. These are implemented in parallel with the overall interior, where placement, material, color and ergonomics are all factors in the design.
Aircraft Size Matters
Based on their overall size, corporate aircraft are manufactured with small, medium and large cabins. Larger cabins have several zones, each with its own set of cabin electronics, and often using similar components throughout. There will be a central management of the overall cabin, via the crucial addition of a master control.
Medium Jets, Light Jets, and Turboprops will require less central management and may work well with a master chair and secondary bench seat control, limiting cabin zones to two.
Real estate and weight limits are at a premium in smaller aircraft, so you can expect to see less space-absorbing avionics, such as amplifiers and wide-dimension monitors. Small and medium size cabins easily lend themselves to walk on devices with Bluetooth connectivity and USB/HDMI ports.
Larger aircraft, being more integrated and centrally managed with slightly older technology, are more likely to still have wired headsets and Standard Definition (SD) monitors.
Meanwhile, connectivity remains the backbone to cabin media and data. Here larger aircraft are equipped with Satcom, offering high-speed data, TV capability and complex cabin routing, well suited to international oceanic operations. Small to medium size aircraft are equipped with satellite Iridium, operating at lower data rates, and Air to Ground (ATG) high-speed broadband, ideal for domestic continental operations.
Some Mid-Size Jets are marginally equipped to operate at the top of their range. Be careful to ensure they have the appropriate cabin avionics, such as Satcom and FANS, for oceanic and remote operations. When delivered as new, these long-range systems may have been listed as options.
FIGURE A: Cabin Examples and Degrees of Complexity in Avionics Systems
Cabin Connectivity for Business Aircraft
Cabin connectivity centers around business and entertainment use. Here are some new and updated communications and data technologies/features.
Satcom: Important for Business Aviation are satcom, high-speed data, broadband internet, and sometimes the ability to fax and print. The satcom on an aircraft should include both voice and data, and the fax/printing should be in a single unit neatly concealed, but easily accessible in the cabin.
Collins Aerospace, Honeywell and Cobham regularly update their systems to accommodate new Inmarsat and other satellite network evolutionary improvements. Satcom systems can be cumbersome, require real estate for the antenna and operate at higher user fees than less complex technologies.
Newer satcom systems are combining High and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite capability, in compact equipment, while using antennas with smaller footprints. Next generation LEO satellites provide less latency (signal delay) because there is much less distance between each satellite and the aircraft.
High Speed Data & Broadband Internet: Intelsat (sat data), Inmarsat, Viasat and SES are designed for worldwide operations, and when fully up-to-date, using Ka-band, they offer 20Mb/s data rates.
As SpaceX continues its launch of many LEO Starlink satellites, and undertakes tests for aircraft internet, the aviation market can anticipate a dramatic uptick in satellite-based internet data rates, with less latency. Apart from latency, the significant number of satellites provide improved connectivity as an aircraft moves through the airspace.
Iridium, using LEO satellites, operates at much lower data rate capability, but is adequate for light onboard business requirements.
Keep in mind that these satcom systems offer dedicated voice capability using cabin handsets. And internet broadband systems achieve voice communication using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and include low delay voice in video conferencing, allowing the use of walk-on wireless headsets.
Non-satellite-based systems, known as Air to Ground (ATG), provide similar data rates to modern Satcom/HSD products but even less latency than LEO satellite-based systems. The decrease in latency is due to the aircraft flying close to ground towers, making ATG ideally suited to video-conferencing and other internet features where time delays are undesirable.
The overall limitation of ATG is the requirement for ground towers that limit its deployment to domestic continental operations.
Two key players in ATG (US) are SmartSky and Gogo, while the latter is also exploring a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite solution for its Avance product, to complement ATG signals. Outside of the US, ATG is being developed by EAN (Europe), SkyFive in Australasia, and ZTE and SkyFive in China, though these are mostly all for commercial operations at this time.
New Broadband Antenna Platform: Satcom Direct (SD), along with Quantum Electronic Systems GmbH (QEST), are now offering a Plane Simple Ku-band antenna system as a complete end-to-end broadband connectivity solution, where SD provides both the hardware and the service provider software for worldwide internet.
SD plans to bring a Ka-band version of the Ku-band system, along with a flat panel, electronically steered, phased array antenna. The latter would provide the same capabilities on smaller turbine aircraft as is provided on larger jets.
Noteworthy, is that the SD Ku-band antenna system uses the Intelsat FlexExec satellite network, exclusively reserved for Business Aviation, leading to greater and more reliable access for flight departments and their customers. The planned Ka-band Plane Simple antenna will operate using the Inmarsat JetConneX service, popular with larger business jets today.
5G ATG: Despite an anticipated Summer ruling on a patent lawsuit between SmartSky and Gogo, both are fast approaching their respective launch of 5G internet capability. Gogo plans to use both 2.4 GHz and 800 MHz frequency bands, to accommodate both urban and non-urban environments.
Gogo customers planning for 5G are advised to install the Avance L5 4G internet system now to beat the anticipated rush to upgrade. Anyone with the older Aircell system, Gogo ATG legacy system, or Avance L3 3G internet system should reach out to their avionics facility for upgrade details.
Once an operator is equipped with the Gogo Avance L5 they’ll be pre-provisioned for 5G. The later upgrade will consist of additional Gogo 3X unit, local wiring, and two antenna replacements.
SmartSky ATG has also been added to Honeywell on its suite of satcom and internet products, providing an option for 4G ATG, and later 5G ATG capability on aircraft already equipped with Honeywell GoDirect router, including via the Honeywell Forge software portal.
FIGURE B: Connectivity, Arrangement, Management and Environment - the Four Areas of Cabin Avionics
Within the cabin, tablets and laptops will be the primary business tools for a while, supplemented by smart phones, mostly for entertainment, steering data throughput to onboard monitors, displaying movies and internet services.
These devices are identified as Personal Electronic Devices (PED). They are a known commodity and aircraft technology is adjusting to accommodate them as they evolve further.
PEDs can now be used to enable, select and display cabin features centered on the ability to connect to a Wi-Fi router and Bluetooth. Because of their broad capability and capacity to use significant amounts of data, larger aircraft allow the galley attendant to act as a gatekeeper monitoring PED connectivity and data usage, via a master cabin controller.
At each seat, today’s operators look for laptop power, USB charging, HDMI video port and Bluetooth audio to facilitate the personal business tools they now bring onboard.
Beside personal walk on capability, many aircraft provide movies and other video materials as stored content using onboard hardwired devices such as Blu-Ray, or earlier DVD/MP3 players. Manufacturers, such as Rosen Aviation and Flight Display Systems have designed integrated Blu-Ray players to their own monitors, operating as proven systems.
Wireless capability extends to personal headsets, while speakers are now emerging without traditional components, replacing them with transducers that ‘vibrate’ the cabin interior. Bongiovi Acoustic Labs are the launch manufacturer at this time, and several major MROs have installed them since around 2020.
The cabin environmental experience includes lighting, temperature control, air quality, soundproofing and window shades. Cabin updates include an ability to use digital switching and control to adjust existing analog temperature mechanisms from the master seat and galley panels.
Note that installing a digital in-seat controller requires an adaptation to existing aircraft systems such as hot water, cabin temperature, some lighting and lavatory flush. LED Lighting is a popular cabin upgrade of late, as many legacy aircraft move away from incandescent technology.
Most LED upgrades are available as ‘virtual’ plug & play for different cabin configurations. Some MROs offer mood lighting and lighted cupholders as a compliment to LED installations.
As a cautionary note, legacy aircraft lighting systems are powered via either AC or DC. DC systems are easier to upgrade, but with either, expect additional and unexpected cabin alteration during an upgrade.
Air quality has always been a fundamental aspect of cabin and cockpit design in corporate aircraft. Since Covid-19, air quality considerations moved up a notch with High Efficiency Particle Assurance (HEPA) filters, Ionization technology, and simpler fresh-air updates available to operators.
Some aircraft are already built as HEPA compliant, while others need an air quality modification that should be considered along with any cabin interior and avionics upgrade.
A crucial aspect of cabin avionics is management, where power distribution, feature and mode selection, zone allocation and individual seat or ‘station’ control are vital for a satisfactory in-flight experience.
The design of cabin management must consider ergonomics, aircraft utilization, seat allocation and maximization of all the features and functions offered by each new system.
A part of the cabin management is cockpit integration. The cockpit integrates to the cabin in several ways:
Another part of cabin management is cabin services that support passengers during flight, both onboard and external to the aircraft. Onboard Services: Include cabin attendant, galley, lavatory/vanity and closets/storage.
For new cabin systems, ensure in-seat selection panels are updated from analog to discrete digital (for example, Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED)) or to touch screen. Include a comparable upgrade of existing vestibule attendant, galley and lavatory/vanity panels, ensuring compatibility and continuity throughout the cabin.
External Services: Refer to service providers. For satcom, ATG and CMS systems, each aircraft manufacturer has its preferred provider. Preferred and independent providers, such as Satcom Direct, also offer significant capability to updated third-party cabin systems.
When considering external services, think how your aircraft intends to operate its cabin and airframe hardware to connect to the wider world. Service providers specialize in a multitude of options for flight departments, each with their own requirements.
General Highlights for New Products
Each aircraft manufacturer has an elected cabin avionics systems provider, and each vies for the market’s attention with bespoke features that only they can provide. However, the manufacturers of aircraft and avionics watch each other like a hawk and mirror the introduction of new products. The following general highlights therefore focus on technology and not the brand.
Many aircraft already have modern features such as HDMI ports and HD or Ultra HD (4K) monitors. With aircraft owners typically being conservative in their budgets and selection of the ‘tried & tested’, however, there are still many in-service pre-flown aircraft without high-speed and high- definition capability.
HDMI connectivity between devices allows for high speed and broader data rates to accommodate HD or Ultra HD (4K) monitor video content, providing passengers with an airborne cabin experience equivalent to a terrestrial one.
New cabin avionics do not need to be sophisticated or complex. Providing USB, charging power and HDMI interface to updated monitors, including at each seat, can be very beneficial and economical.
As one example, a typical cabin upgrade for Light and Mid-Size Jets is well presented by systems provider Flight Display Systems (FDS) Avionics, which offers a simple, structured solution for many different cockpits. The company uses similar product, but with different layouts, adding a Galley Master control for some larger aircraft models. A typical FDS Avionics system consists of:
Together these components represent a powerful cabin system at reasonable cost. Aside from aircraft OEMs and their well-known partnered avionics providers, other dedicated third party provider companies such as Rosen, ALTO, Airtext, Gogo Business Aviation and Heads-Up Technologies offer various new and novel cabin electronics solutions to operators.
The OEM providers also offer their products to different manufactured aircraft, typically as higher-end CMS solutions.
Lastly, a cabin systems upgrade should consider adding satellite radio Sirius XM that does not require significant real estate for either its antenna or hardware, and provides music and weather to both cockpit and cabin.
Cabin avionics are wide ranging and come in all shapes and sizes. Because of the variability and available choice, some solutions are highly customized.
Customized cabin systems are welcomed by third-party avionics providers, where the engineering, installation and certification challenge are easier to overcome. Nevertheless, be very careful to ensure any custom cabin solution, including interior furnishing and paneling upgrade, is future- proofed for the following:
All components of a custom installation should be tried and tested. They should be approved for that aircraft, and when installed as a complete system, certifiable. As a rule, if you are involved in aircraft for fractional, lease or charter, anticipate a mix of passengers using the equipment over several years before the aircraft is sold.
Select new cabin systems that are in widespread use, robust, intuitive and user-friendly. Support may be needed at unfamiliar airports, and passengers will not be well versed in the features and functions of the aircraft cabin.
Owners with mixed fleets, carrying corporate clients across a fleet of aircraft, should seriously consider commonality across each platform. Make it easy for passengers moving between airplanes, and further assist by setting up and testing their PEDs for connectivity on each, ensuring security protocols are correctly in place.
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