FARNBOROUGH: Thales displays latest in IFE technology

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Thales has been handed the ideal opportunity to show off its latest in-flight entertainment and connectivity innovations at the show, thanks to the presence of Qatar Airways' Boeing 787.

The widebody twinjet is the first 787 to feature on-board connectivity, and the first to be equipped with Thales touch passenger media units (TPMU), a precursor to the French manufacturer's next-generation Avant IFEC system, which will make its debut towards the end of 2013 - also with Qatar Airways - on the A380.

Avant is the latest iteration of Thales' TopSeries family of IFEC systems, initially targeted at the A350, for which Qatar Airways is launch customer.

"The Avant system is the future of IFE for us," says Alan Pellegrini, CEO of Thales' IFEC business.

"Think of the TPMU as kind of an iPhone to not only control the system but serve as a dual entertainment device in its own right," he says.

"You can now get on board an aircraft and not just watch the movie in front of you, but perhaps view the moving map, play a game, or order meals or drinks simultaneously while watching what's on the main screen."

Of the connectivity system on the Qatar 787, Pellegrini says: "We're providing a turnkey solution that will provide both GSM and wi-fi access, using the Inmarsat satellite constellation to provide all passengers on board the aircraft with connectivity."

The TPMUs on the Qatar 787 are integrated with the current-generation i8000 TopSeries platform, which is "today's state of the art IFE system and is the same platform that British Airways will be taking on their 787s", says Pellegrini.

thales avant

Thales Avant

The latest in IFE

A key attribute of Avant is it is based on Google's Android operating system for mobile devices.

"We want to take advantage of the Google marketplace and the ability to get more and more applications on board an IFE system sooner," says Pellegrini. "We have access to all of those thousands of applications to put on the system in a much more easy manner."

Another feature of Avant is the ability to provide up to 256GB of local solid-state storage built into the seat-mounted display.

"The storage at the seat gives us two very important things," says Pellegrini. "First off, it gives us another level of redundancy. The biggest fear in our industry is what we would call a 'dark flight'. We never want an entire aircraft or row of seats to be without any form of entertainment. With seat storage at this level we can now put approximately 100 movies stored at the seat.

"It also gives the ability to create an Avant configuration that we call 'Avant light', which allows us to scale back the amount of equipment, effectively get rid of the servers, and rely exclusively on the storage at the display.

"It allows airlines that don't want to make as much investment an opportunity to have a bit of a lower cost system but with pretty much all of the same features, but rely exclusively on the seat for content."

Meanwhile, Thales' solution for streaming video to hand-held devices in the cabin is known as Ava. It uses the same server developed to provide on-board connectivity, but to stream video to devices brought on board by passengers. Germany's Siemens has been drafted in to assist with the software, as it has experience with digital rights management in the commercial train market.

Ava is expected to be flying by the first quarter of 2013, and two unannounced customers have been secured.

"Typically, these wireless products aren't going to serve an entire long-range aircraft, but they can serve an entire short-range aircraft, and they can augment the embedded solutions in a widebody aircraft," says Pellegrini.

Band width and interference issues limit the number of passengers who can stream wireless content simultaneously to about 90, says Pellegrini. "We're still trying to do things to push that envelope," he says.

But does state-of-the-art IFEC really hold sway over increasingly cost-conscious travellers?

BA director of engineering Garry Copeland says: "The reasons why people buy tickets are either price, route or schedule driven, but there are an awful lot of what on one level you could regard as 'hygiene' factors that really make people come back to you, and a good in-flight experience is really powerful for getting people to come back again.

"We take IFE very seriously, but we don't want to be burdening ticket prices in a way that customers aren't prepared to accept either. It's a fine balance and something you have to think your way through very carefully," he says.