#MROAM: Former Boeing Australia president talks “seat-centric” IFE

I know you might think I’m being a little bit naughty today, posting a second guest blog in a row on RWG, but I simply can’t help myself on this one. After all, how often does the former president of Boeing Australia agree to write a blog for you about in-flight entertainment (IFE) AND maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO), the latter topic being the focus of the Aviation Week MRO Americas show in Miami, of which I’m attending right now? Well precisely.

David Withers, who began his aviation career as a Boeing 737 and Airbus A300 engineer with Qantas Airways, is now vice president Asia Pacific for Intelligent Avionics, whose mission is to bring new “seat-centric” in-flight entertainment to aircraft by way of Dell computers and the Windows operating system (kind of like the home office above, only in an aircraft seat.)

Read on for David’s perspective on how seat-centric IFE may make a carrier’s maintenance life easier. Obviously, his views are his own, and any detractors are as always welcome to respond in kind. :-)

Guest blog by David Withers:

The rise of “seat-centric” inflight entertainment (IFE) systems is likely to benefit airline maintenance and engineering teams worldwide. Seat-centric systems are a significant technological advance compared to existing technology. The old solution, which accounts for about 90% of installed IFE systems (mostly on widebody fleets), relies on heavy, failure-prone servers built around ancient components – some of them still rely on Intel 386 processors, a chipset in its prime in the late 1980s!  

Seat-centric IFE systems, by contrast, put the intelligence and storage in every seat unit.  Our AURATM system, for example, is essentially a Dell PC in the seatback, with an Intel Atom processor running Windows 7, 512 GB of storage (upgradeable to 1 TB), and a touchscreen in sizes from 7″ to 15″ (or any larger, commercially available size; units 15″ and larger include a 5″ touchscreen controller adjacent to the passenger).  Instead of a server installation that weighs up to 1000 kilograms, there’s a 3.5 kg. interface to the aircraft’s avionics and cabin systems. Each seat unit and ancillary hardware weigh less and the system consumes far less power compared to older systems, reducing burden on electrical systems and air-conditioning packs. We estimate in a typical wide body installation, AURA would yield annual fuel savings of US$200,000 to $600,000 per aircraft, and prevent 1,850 to 5,550 metric tons of CO2  from entering the atmosphere.  A further benefit of a light weight seat-centric system is that narrow body aircraft can now offer the same IFE experience as their bigger brothers.

Seat-centric IFE systems like AURA were designed from a blank piece of paper, with significant input from aircraft interiors and avionics engineers, who provided advice in several key areas. Beyond the wise counsel to jettison the boat-anchor servers, they recommended several ways to make retrofit or line-fit installation easier and quicker.  And they insisted that the seat unit be easily upgradeable, to eliminate the need for costly recertification and prevent the classic problem of “obsolescence prior to installation”.

But just (and I use the word loosely) moving the content and system intelligence to the seat isn’t the whole story, because aircraft components, particularly those in the hands of passengers, will eventually fail.  So the AURA seat unit can be hot-swapped in flight, and we’ve added intelligent redundancy to the power and data.  Together these technologies allow us to guarantee a 99.999% IFE availability, at least two orders of magnitude better than what is fitted today. That’s real availability, not dispatch reliability!

All this means seat-centric systems will require far less maintenance, in fact no maintenance at all when away from home base.  And with our 5 year exchange warranty there is no annual maintenance cost.  That is surely good news for MRO leaders who continue to be pressed to do more with fewer financial and human resources.

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3 Responses to #MROAM: Former Boeing Australia president talks “seat-centric” IFE

  1. Robert E. Coli April 14, 2011 at 7:48 am #

    Interesting the comment about old 386 processors… makes me wonder how many IFE systems are still Windows based…? With reliability vital, and unreliability unforgivable (even if one out of 50 seats is not working, if it mine I will be VERY cranky), what operating systems run the modern systems?

    (Could anyone design a system these days using Windows, after being let down by it so many times before? The unreliability of 386 systems had little to do with the hardware, and more to do with the software that ran on them.)

  2. Darrin Mariotti April 15, 2011 at 8:59 am #

    Buenas, Igual no es el sitio, ¿cómo me puedo poner en contacto contigo? Un saludo, gracias!

  3. Mary Kirby April 15, 2011 at 10:05 am #

    Check out the latest blog, Robert. You’re not alone in your questions.