Cabin Tech: It Just Keeps Getting Better

The latest products continue to improve connectivity, lighting, and in-flight entertainment.

Business jet cabin technology has been advancing rapidly for years, and the progress shows no signs of slowing. Improvements in entertainment, ground-to-air connectivity, and even onboard air and water quality are making your ride better than ever.

Consider, for example, cabin pressure altitude, which is critical for passenger health. At cabin altitudes higher than 8,000 feet, you can feel fatigued, desiccated, and even ill from oxygen deprivation. Gulfstream’s newest aircraft, the G600, can maintain a 4,850-foot cabin altitude at its maximum altitude of 51,000 feet, far above the weather and most traffic. The compressed air in the cabin, which is completely replenished every two minutes, reduces the effects of jet lag. 

Gulfstream’s G600
Gulfstream’s G600 can maintain a 4,850-foot cabin altitude at its maximum flying altitude.

Outside air at the rarified altitudes where business jets fly is extremely dry—think Death Valley, California. The newest jets have humidification systems that further enhance health and comfort, and companies such as Panasonic Avionics now offer seat-integrated air-decontamination systems. The Panasonic Nanoe works by applying low voltage to moisture, which bursts into nano-sized electrostatic atomized particles. 

Cabin lighting and video technology have improved, as well. Collins Aerospace won a 2019 Crystal Cabin award for its LED lighting, the μLED, which is a tough little multitasking unit. It has much longer life than a standard reading light and can be switched between a focused beam for reading and a dome light that can be synchronized to other cabin lighting to match ambience, including brightness and color. 

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The company also plans to produce lighter and more flexible Secant micro LED panels. “These unique panels are millimeters thin, and can cover a bulkhead, ceiling, or even sidewalls of an aircraft, then be set to work in unison,” says Andrew Clegg, Collins’s director of business development, interiors, evacuation, water, and lighting solutions. Imagine a huge 4K video panel that can project calming scenes (perhaps of the destination) or the graphics needed to run a business meeting across a bulkhead wall. That’s on the horizon in about three years, according to Clegg. For those who don’t care for the experience of flying, the panels could be programmed to create the illusion of being somewhere else.

Bombardier’s Soleil system
Bombardier’s Soleil system can simulate a gradual transition between lighting conditions at departure and arrival points.

Airbus once prophesized that it would develop a fuselage that was all window by 2050. Collins Aerospace could make you feel that you’re inside such a fuselage a lot sooner.

“Ultimately, the whole fuselage could be paneled with Secant and there would be no need for windows,” says Clegg. “You could use external cameras to make the walls of the aircraft seem transparent.” 

Bombardier has its own cabin-lighting innovation with its Soleil system, which it introduced this past May exclusively on its flagship Global 7500. When mated to the aircraft navigation system, Soleil can synchronize the outdoor lighting conditions of the departure and arrival points with the cabin lighting. During the flight, the system manages the red and blue light wavelengths to simulate a gradual, scientifically calculated transition between the two time zones. It warms tones for the sunset and evening, shutting down blue light and increasing passengers’ production of sleep hormones; then it simulates sunrise and morning light in sync with the destination, which turns on internal “wake up” hormones. The system can cue the crew to serve meals in line with the shifting time, and passengers arrive rested and ready to work with minimal jet lag. 

“We call it dynamic daylight simulation,” says Tim Fagan, manager of industrial design for business aircraft at Bombardier. “It employs different wavelengths of light that you'd experience throughout the day. Of course, if you're having a working session, you can use slightly bluer shades of white to illuminate the session. If you're relaxing—watching a movie or reading or just chilling out—you might want to shade a little bit towards those warmer tones. It's a powerful system, not only for long flights, but even for flights of two or three hours that might include a work session or a meal with family.”

Stepping aboard a factory-new business jet you may notice a lack of tablet-sized perma-mounted touchscreens or membrane buttons to control lighting, cabin temperature, furniture position, and video. The seat-side controller persists, but its form factor has changed significantly. MRO and aircraft completions firm Lufthansa Technik’s cabin-management and entertainment system, called “nice,” which is featured on Bombardier’s newest aircraft, is controlled by an elegant circular OLED touch dial. The controller rises from the recesses of a side ledge positioned where a person’s hand would fall, and with a single gesture it delivers touch-and-turn functionality for lights, sound, audiovisual equipment, and more. 

Lufthansa Technik’s cabin-management system
A circular OLED touch dial that rises from a side ledge controls Lufthansa Technik’s cabin-management system.

Though some version of hardwired control for cabin management will likely always exist, many manufacturers are employing powerful, quick, and increasingly stable wireless networks. To use the system, passengers are delivered a QR code on boarding that allows them to download a proprietary app that (for security purposes) works on that flight only. (Companies can modify this for a single-owner aircraft.) Once logged in, passengers can control the lighting system, exchange messages with the crew, and access the entertainment system and the internet through the app. 

Big strides have been made recently regarding the connectivity that keeps passengers tethered to work and home while flying. Air-to-ground (ATG) connectivity using cell towers, which works above 10,000 feet, is barely able to keep up with the streaming needs of the modern business jet. Provider Gogo’s ATG network is limited to North America for now (it does have satellites for international use). Both Gogo and relative newcomer SmartSky Networks are promising 4G speeds, which are coming online this year. The two companies plan to debut 5G ATG by 2021. 

The fastest connections blanketing the earth are on Ka and Ku band satellite networks from vendors such as Iridium, Inmarsat, and Viasat. Inmarsat’s GX fleet consists of four satellites and will include seven by mid-2021. The company’s current focus is on completing coverage for flights over the polar regions.

The satellites deliver nearly 5G speeds that allow 20 or more passengers to access their cloud-based entertainment products on the ground and at all altitudes. Such high speeds and low latency mean aircraft no longer need heavy, expensive, onboard hard drives preloaded with music and movies that must be constantly updated. You can stream the content you desire from your personal devices. 

Pulling all this technology together, Lufthansa Technik is introducing Skyretreats, unveiling the first version of the concept on Airbus’s ACJ220 business jet in the third quarter of this year. The design integrates several technologies, including a 4K roll-up display, LED “sky-panels,” smart-touch windows, and tables that can double as computer monitors. The cabin design is also one of the first to include voice control for the nice cabin-management system. What will they think of next? 

Securing Onboard Networks

Securing all the data flowing to and from a business aircraft is essential. It takes a lot to stop aggressive and intelligent hackers and ransomware scammers, but two companies, RazorSecure in Europe, and Satcom Direct in North America, are on the case. Both companies secure mobile networks, but they go about it differently.

RazorSecure has grown from its principal business—securing public Wi-Fi and private networks carrying critical data on European trains—to securing aircraft with its proprietary monitoring and robust virtual private networking software.RazorSecure expects its cybersecurity intrusion-detection software to be available by year-end with an airborne wireless router made by U.S.-based VT Miltope. 

Satcom Direct uses its established SD Pro dashboard to monitor threats to private aircraft subscribers and can deliver a real-time, centralized, inflight view of the cabin network to flight departments and security experts. Any abnormal behavior is flagged, and potential threats are blocked before they can reach the digital devices in use on an aircraft. 

If a compromised device is detected attempting to use the network, both RazorSecure and Satcom’s services can block it from propagating the threat or “calling home” through a back door to hackers.

“About 80 to 90 percent of risk is in how hackers exploit the human factor,” says Michael Skou Christensen, vice president of Satcom Direct International. 

Satcom Direct notes that hackers are going after passengers on business jets with rising frequency. In the first quarter of 2019, the company logged a 54 percent increase from the same quarter in the previous year in serious threats to the 600 aircraft that subscribe to its threat-monitoring service. These threats are often from sophisticated, well-known hackers, some of whom are hired by nation states or criminal entities that hope to create chaos or target specific VIPs. —A.L.

Do Drink the Water

With today’s focus on eliminating plastics from our environment’s waste stream, more and more people are avoiding bottled water. Unfortunately, airplane water tanks aren’t sterile, and bringing on tap water from foreign ports can be problematic. 

German innovator Diehl Aviation can make the tap water on aircraft safe to drink. The company’s UV-LED water-disinfection unit offers a retrofit antibacterial filter based on UVC LEDs–a compact, robust technology with low power consumption, which can be integrated close to or directly into any faucet. Diehl claims that the unit kills 99.99 percent of germs. —A.L.