Cabin Tech '08

For technology lovers, today's business jet cabin is a wonderland, offering everything from moving-map displays with satellite photos to in-flight use of a BlackBerry. And every time you think you've seen it all, along comes another innovation-often for less money than you paid for the product it replaces.

Here's a report on some of the latest technologies available now and coming soon for the private jet cabin. It's guaranteed to be up to date at least until the ink dries on this page.

Pass the Popcorn

SkyTheater's latest offering is a high-definition audiovisual and surround-sound entertainment system that doesn't degrade in the aircraft environment; isn't vulnerable to common onboard noises; and doesn't generate noise that would affect other systems in the airplane. Earlier versions of the product are already on Boeings and Gulfstreams, and according to company founder Gregg Launer, the Hollywood, Fla.-based audiovisual specialist has 12 orders for the new package, with deliveries spaced out through 2011.

The product features subwoofers customized for the aircraft; an iPod dock capable of playing eight-channel, 3-D surround sound; and a 1080i monitor that is HD ready. The high-definition video-on-demand system available with the package "rivals that of a movie studio's library," claimed Launer.

Satellite TV Pricing Comes Down to Earth
The biggest impediment to adding satellite television to a business jet is the sky-high cost. Prices top out at half a million dollars for the tail-mounted dish antenna and associated receivers, which can take weeks to install. Another hitch is that most satellite TV antennas are so big that they can fit only on large business jets.

Now, after more than three years of development, Flight Display Systems (the moving map people), has gained FAA certification for its Ellipse TV antenna and receiver system, finally giving buyers a palatable alternative to the big-ticket multi-region systems available from Honeywell and Rockwell Collins. Priced at $99,650, Ellipse TV uses a KVH Industries phased-array antenna (normally found atop mobile homes and yachts) that is housed in a 35-inch-diameter fiberglass-honeycomb radome secured to the fuselage by four leg attachments.

The odd-looking installation recalls military AWACS aircraft, but designers promise that it doesn't adversely affect aircraft performance. An advantage of the system is that the antenna can fit on smaller aircraft, down to the size of midsize jets and even large turboprops. So far, Ellipse TV is approved for installation only on the Bombardier Challenger 600, but authorization for use on more models is expected soon. The system's DirecTV signal is available anywhere over the continental U.S. to a distance of about 200 miles offshore. Two tuners allow passengers to watch different channels simultaneously. Picture quality is excellent, although the signal can drop out during steep banks on takeoff and landing.  

A High-Def War Ends
High-definition television, which boasts more than twice the video resolution of the old standard-definition technology, looks as good in an airplane as it does in your den. Just remember that the old admonition to computer users applies to HDTV: "garbage in, garbage out." If the signal your monitor receives isn't high-definition, the output won't be either, regardless of the TV. Unfortunately for high-def users, manufacturers of two high-definition DVD formats-HD-DVD and Blu-ray-have been, for the past couple of years, battling for market domination. This made cabin completion and refurbishment shops reluctant to pick one or the other and risk sticking clients with the wrong choice. In recent months, however, Blu-ray has emerged as the clear winner. Flight Display Systems of Alpharetta, Ga., has introduced the Fly HD line of cabin displays and an innovative way of playing HD movies-its PlayStation 3 docking station allows the gaming system's Blu-ray player to link with cabin monitors.

Getting the Bigger Picture
A large video monitor allows a broader viewing area. And with high-definition containing more than two million pixels and a progressive-scan format, you can sit closer to the screen without experiencing a loss of sharpness.

Not every airplane will accommodate a big monitor, but they're increasingly available. The most recent offering by Aircraft Cabin Systems of Redmond, Wash., is a 52-inch LCD unit that weighs less than 80 pounds, has a 176-degree viewing angle and is high-definition ready.

Every Seat's a Sweet Spot
Manufacturers are taking advantage of digital technology to produce stunning sound systems. Alto Aviation of Leominster, Mass., has introduced nVelop, a surround-sound system already being installed in a G550 by Gulfstream at its Appleton, Wis. completion facility. It is a "full-cabin approach" to audio, according to the company, because unlike a typical home theater, an aircraft cabin doesn't allow for an audio "sweet spot" directly in front of the screen. The nVelop system takes this into consideration and allows the individual placement of lightweight standard and surround-sound speakers with customized audio coding, so every passenger in every seat experiences the same high-quality sound.

The Moving Map Moves On
Remember the early moving-map displays, the ones with a simple airplane icon that crawled slowly across a map that was only a step above the ones hanging on the walls in your fifth-grade geography class? In just the last couple of years, moving-map display technology has taken a quantum leap, to the point that it has become the platform for a sophisticated flight-following program and, at the same time, a multimedia news, sports and entertainment source.

It is not uncommon now for the moving map to display satellite imagery and to include a zoom feature for a closer look at the terrain over which the airplane passes. The latest from Flight Display Systems offers a choice of aircraft-type icons. (One option, for the devout Muslim, is an arrow that always points toward Mecca.) Rosen Aviation's new RosenView VX widescreen moving-map display even supports DVD and iPod auxiliary input. And the company's RosenView LXM brings XM satellite weather displays into the picture.

Wi-Fi Takes to the Sky
American Airlines and Virgin America were the first airlines to sign up for GoGo in-flight Wi-Fi service from Aircell, a Louisville, Colo. company that two years ago paid $31 million to the federal government for a slice of radio frequency spectrum that had been used for seat-back phones. The airlines are just now starting to introduce the service on routes from New York to L.A., San Francisco and Miami, with online access costing around $13 per flight.

Next, Aircell will turn its attention to the business jet market, rolling out access at DSL-like speeds to high-fliers connecting to the Internet through any Wi-Fi-ready device or laptop. Aircell has deployed around 90 ground stations to supply a steady diet of high-speed data to airplanes flying above 10,000 feet. The towers-some of which had to be hauled to mountaintops on converted army tanks-are spaced more or less evenly around the country to provide overlapping coverage with few gaps.

Aircell said its broadband service will cost business jet users $1,495 a month for unlimited access. Hardware for large jets will set buyers back $125,000. Smaller systems coming soon for midsize jets will sell for around $80,000, Aircell said.

Keep Your BlackBerry On
Once the airplane has been fitted with data transceivers and a Wi-Fi access point, passengers carrying iPhones or the latest Wi-Fi-enabled BlackBerrys can stay connected even after takeoff-if they've made a deal with their service provider. Honeywell recently installed a Wi-Fi communications gateway on its corporate Gulfstream G550 that enables its executives to use their BlackBerrys. The exercise is serving as a testing ground for new Wi-Fi services through Honeywell's OneLink communications service. Rockwell Collins also is preparing for an expected surge in passenger demand by readying its eXchange service for data connectivity using Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones such as the BlackBerry 8320 and 8820. Both companies say BlackBerry use is near the top of customers' wish lists.

Anticipating an uptick in demand for such access, ABC Completions in Montreal has even trademarked the name "AirBerry." The company has started offering satcom
hardware options that it says will allow passengers' BlackBerrys to synch with onboard satcom equipment with minimal upgrades. The cost per e-mail using the system is between 10 and 50 cents, depending on message size. AirBerry system components include an EMS Satcom high-speed-data terminal, wireless router and fuselage- or tail-mounted antenna. The total price to upgrade a business jet that already has a voice-only satcom system is about $200,000, the company said.

Plug and Play
Even as cabin entertainment systems expand, more and more passengers are packing their own. With that in mind, Rockwell Collins recently introduced Venue, a high-definition cabin system that allows for iPod and iPhone integration.

"It's something everybody wants," said Randy Keeker, president of independent completion and refurbishment shop Indianapolis Jet Center. He added that iPod docking stations "have become almost as common at every seat as a reading light. Audio is the norm, and iPod video interface is next."

Also available with Venue is a personal audio/video on-demand package that allows passengers to plug in an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 and compete with other passengers. A camera hookup permits transfer of photos to the media-center hard drive.

Rosen Aviation recently introduced its RosenView VX combo unit, which supports a moving-map program and DVD player and allows for iPod input. The addition of iPod adds another video source, and separate audio and video inputs permit the passenger to listen to music while the moving map is displayed.

Lufthansa Technik's Nice digital cabin management and entertainment system includes an iPod docking station that allows the digitally distributed signal to be heard on a headset or over the cabin speakers. Users can control the iPod at their seats through a graphical interface, create and choose playlists and play, pause or stop songs, just as if the iPod were in their hands. The system will be available this summer.

Like HDTV? Wait Till You See This
Introduced earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Sony's 11-inch organic light-emitting diode (OLED) television wowed just about everybody who elbowed in for a closer look. Thinner than a poker chip, its screen has a touted lifespan of 10 years and resolution that's claimed to be 100 times sharper than current high-definition technology can deliver. Given the goal of cabin in-flight entertainment specialists to cut weight and size wherever possible, OLEDs seem perfectly suited for business jets-but are they?

Pioneered by Kodak in the 1980s, OLED technology uses carbon-based organic material in a process that converts electrical energy into light. Because OLED screens emit light rather than being backlit like LCD TVs, their pictures are far sharper and brighter than those of even the latest HDTVs. OLED TVs also use less power compared with LCD and plasma models, another plus for aviation use.

So what's keeping OLED monitors off business jets? For starters, OLED pixels are extremely fragile. Manufacturers have had to begin with small displays, and they aren't sure these early TVs can withstand the temperature and pressure changes inside an aircraft cabin-at least for long. But the technology has advanced significantly in a short time. At a consumer display show a few years ago, Sony showed a prototype OLED display that suffered from dozens of pixel failures over the span of just a few days. Experts say that once the longevity problems are solved, OLED technology likely will debut in the cabin.
Kirby Harrison welcomes comments and suggestions 

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