Building rugged computing platforms for the defence industry has long been the bread and butter of AP Labs. Since 1985 the privately held San Diego-based company has worked with customers including Boeing, L-3 Communications, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon on systems that can withstand harsh environments such as manned and unmanned aircraft, submarines, and surface ships. Now AP Labs is making a foray into another harsh environment: the world of in-flight entertainment and communications (IFE&C) for commercial and general aviation.
It is a move that has its known risks. The IFE&C industry is littered with the names of companies whose offerings have fallen short or failed to attract appropriate interest. But AP Labs appears well placed to secure substantial business. Under a newly created division called AP Avionx, the firm is leveraging its design and engineering experience to provide critical system components that enable the types of in-flight broadband services airlines are now clamouring to bring on board - internet, VPN access, email and multimedia capabilities. Significantly, AP Avionx is able to support in-flight connectivity solutions that operate over either a broadband air-to-ground (ATG) or air-to-satellite link.
© AP Avionx
After making previous inroads with now defunct Verizon Airfone, AP Avionx has forged contracts with the leading provider of ATG services in the USA, Aircell, as well as an up-and-comer in the satellite sphere, Row 44. In the former case, AP Avionx is delivering air-to-ground communications units (AACU), an important subsystem of Aircell's overall solution that provides both the ATG wireless link for in-flight broadband access and an independent terrestrial modem to be used while the aircraft is on the ground. The AACU also incorporates a GPS receiver, GigE switch and an embedded microcontroller board for housekeeping and system management.
Aircell is testing its solution, dubbed Gogo, on American's 15-strong fleet of transcontinental Boeing 767-200s. Should the test prove a success, American intends to equip its entire domestic fleet with Gogo. Delta Air Lines and Virgin America have also signed agreements with Aircell, in addition to a fourth as-yet-undisclosed customer. The result is that thousands of AP Avionx systems are poised to be installed on the US fleet.
For Row 44, Avionx is supplying the modem data unit (MDU) and server management unit (SMU) for the California-based company, which uses existing Ku-band satellite networks to offer global coverage. Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines have agreed to test the system. "Both the MDU and SMU units have been through Federal Aviation Administration flight certification testing, and we're within a few days of shipping the first units to Row 44," says AP Avionx director of commercial products Eric Tarter.
Other target customers include key industry players that require a development partner with advanced systems and packaging experience. "We believe that we've got a unique skill set that will benefit firms like Panasonic and Thales," says director of business development Michael Humphrey, noting that AP Avionx has "a very application-specific understanding of airborne systems and the challenges that the regulatory requirements demand".
Panasonic is developing a Ku-band-based in-flight broadband product called eXConnect, while Thales has outlined a connectivity strategy that uses Inmarsat's SwiftBroadband satcom network. To attract these and others firms, Avionix is focusing on making its products lightweight and low-power, with small footprint packaging schemes.
The company is also developing products independently in an effort to establish itself "and climb the food chain a bit", says Humphrey. Avionix will release some product details at this week's World Airline Entertainment Association conference and exhibition in Long Beach, California.
"We really see this whole conference as our coming-out party. We have been so focused on these two major customers [Aircell and Row 44] that we really have not gone to the market as yet. This is the first time that we really show everybody what we're capable of," says Humphrey.