The World Airline Entertainment Association meetsnext week in Seattle, with its goal of standardisingthird-generation in-flight entertainment systems in sight

Airframe manufacturers breathed a sigh of relief in June when the latest steps were taken on the path to achieving standardisation for in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems. After nearly two years of work, the IFE industry body, the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA), which holds its annual show in Seattle from 9-12 September, completed the requirements and guidelines for third-generation cabin networks and handed them over to Arinc to complete the standards.

The work started after years of problems encountered by airframe manufacturers with new interactive IFE systems. "The airframers and the airlines were really getting affected by the instability of these systems and their continual changes. It was affecting not only the aircraft deliveries, but also the ability of airlines to upgrade and retrofit systems," says Boeing's Sudhakar Shetty, who has spearheaded the WAEA's third-generation standards work.

The intention was to standardise the areas affecting airframers and airlines, while simultaneously giving the IFE system suppliers the ability to be competitive. "We wanted to lead with some sort of industry standard that all IFE suppliers could follow in the development of their third-generation cabin IFE systems," says Shetty.

The third-generation system standards are designed to support products being developed for the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 7E7, which are expected to come on line by 2006. Shetty adds: "Typically in the past the systems were developed first by various suppliers in different ways, and then we tried to standardise them. In that case we ended up putting all those systems in a document and called it a standard."

For the third-generation systems, the industry had three objectives - to lead the suppliers with a single standard; to make the cabin network plug-and-play, which would allow the airlines to easily upgrade with new systems; and to leverage some of the recent technological advances to help improve airline revenue.

The standardisation process has some way to go, with preliminary standards expected to be agreed by the third quarter of 2004 and the final "grey cover" to be ready by the first quarter of 2005, says Shetty.

WAEA members have agreed the backbone topology and wiring infrastructure, but details of the form and fit of individual line replaceable units to make them plug and play have to be worked out, says Shetty.

Significant changes

The details agreed upon bring significant changes from earlier networks, he says. Third-generation systems will comprise an all-digital distribution system, with no dedicated video control centre (VCC) in the cabin, which will allow airlines to use the space previously taken up by the VCC for more revenue-generating applications. In addition, "seat boxes will be standardised to a smaller footprint, in a way that they will not encroach as much into the passenger space", he says, adding that this should improve seat comfort for passengers. Furthermore, the backbone wiring from the head-end will be fibre-optic cable, which is expected to provide unlimited bandwidth for growth at the same time as significantly reducing weight and electro-magnetic interference issues. Third-generation systems will also be consistent withe-enabled architecture, allowing the IFE to talk to systems such as satellite communications and gatelink in a seamless manner, says Shetty.

"Most important of all it will be a single standard that can support plug-and-play of multiple IFE systems. That means airlines can switch between suppliers without affecting any of the infrastructure," he adds.

Shetty says Boeing is "reasonably happy" with what has been achieved. "We have so far met the intent of what we were trying to do. Some of the details are not to the extent that we wanted, but that is how the standards process works. No-one gets everything they want, but it helps everyone in the long run."

The standardisation work comes as the manufacturers are working on third-generation systems for new platforms, such as the A380. Rockwell Collins is using its ETES (Enhanced Total Entertainment System) as the backbone for its system for the A380. "A couple of years ago when we set out on ETES we knew enough about the A380 that we could develop this platform for it," says Dave Frankenbach, director of cabin systems marketing. ETES, which was introduced into service by launch customer Qantas earlier this year, is in service on four of the carrier's widebodies.

ETES is the successor to Rockwell's TES, incorporating elements of the P@ssport IFE system, formerly developed by Sony Trans Com and which was purchased by Rockwell in 2000. The system incorporates modem technology from the cable television industry and Microsoft's Windows operating system, providing increased bandwidth and the ability to support countless applications. ETES provides laptop connectivity via an ethernet port at every seat and can support audio- and video-on-demand (A/VOD) throughout an aircraft, in addition to games, information services and shopping. Rockwell has orders and options for ETES for 150 aircraft, with unannounced orders believed to be from Air France and Lufthansa, in addition to Qantas.

The ETES system could support full A/VOD to up to 1,000 seats, says Frankenbach. Although the general architecture for Rockwell's IFE system for the A380 will be that of ETES, the system will incorporate some changes, including new file servers and seat boxes.

Weight reduction is a focus of attention for the new system, with Airbus and the airlines pushing for reductions in the bulk and size of IFE systems. "Airbus is focusing on weight reduction and we have some ideas on how to accomplish this," says Frankenbach. In particular this involves focusing on the area of seat integration, making the seat boxes smaller. "We are looking at conceptual designs to reduce seat box sizes and we have had good discussions with seat vendors on this issue," he says, adding that Rockwell believes size reduction of 30-40% is possible. ETES itself is smaller than its predecessor TES.

The capacity that Rockwell has built into ETES means that it does not see the need for fibre-optic cabling for its system. "It's clear that new wiring standards will be available with fibre-optics, but we have more than enough network capacity," says Frankenbach, adding that if the third-generation cabin standards process results in a requirement for fibre-optics, it can be accommodated in the ETES network.

Meanwhile, Rockwell is continuing to look at wireless developments, in particular to support connectivity, although Airbus has not set any wireless system requirements for the A380, says Frankenbach.

The ETES platform is expected to see Rockwell through to the end of the decade, says Frankenbach. "Our focus is on enhancing ETES, addressing A380 changes and applying new technology within the ETES environment," he adds.

Next generation

Matsushita has been working on its proposed next-generation hardware, dubbed Project Kayak, for over a year. Project Kayak continues to gather momentum and is targeted for availability coinciding with the entry into service of the A380 in the first quarter of 2006, says Paul Margis, senior vice-president and chief technology officer. The manufacturer plans to start testing prototype systems this year.

Although Matsushita is tight-lipped on details of Project Kayak, it will incorporate technology from the manufacturer's interactive IFE systems, such as System 3000 and the latest version System 3000i and the EFX product range for narrowbody aircraft. System 3000i, which was recently launched into service by EVA Air, was a development of System 3000, incorporating plug-and- play connectivity through the addition of an ethernet jack and improved performance. Project Kayak will provide all the functionality of its predecessors, but promises the breakthrough in size and weight reductions that airlines and airframe manufacturers have long demanded.

"We plan for Kayak to be the fastest IFE system with the best media library platform - double today's content and coverage - along with advanced passenger interfaces and an unprecedented features list - all in the smallest package ever," says Margis. "At the same time, we plan to link with System 3000 and EFX to ensure that customer investment is maximised," he adds.

Seat boxes will be "significantly" smaller and lighter and will use "significantly" less power, he says, declining to provide specifics, although earlier estimates had pointed to 25-30% reductions are System 3000/3000i. "Integration of functions in head-end units as well as integration and distribution of functions in the seat box facilitate these reductions," says Margis. He adds: "By optimising the allocation of functionality throughout the seat environment and maximising the efficiency of the power supply subsystems, we have achieved significant gains."

Automobile systems

The manufacturer is using media-oriented systems transport (MOST) technology, which was pioneered by the automotive industry and used by Matsushita's parent company in its Panasonic consumer brand car entertainment systems. Matsushita is also exploring other technologies to provide benefits, says Margis, declining to elaborate.

The project designs support the mounting of seat boxes in multiple locations, other than under the seat, although production aircraft still require seat integration. "We are placing a strong emphasis on integration into the seat, with the smallest possible boxes to maximise mounting flexibility. We are leveraging technologies developed for our eFX product with similar-sized boxes," says Margis.

Matsushita will also extend the use of fibre-optics in the new system. The System 3000 already uses fibre-optics for head-end servers and Kayak will extend this to the cabin areas, he says. Further innovations are planned. "We have several new display technologies and wireless products in the research and development stage."

Matsushita is looking beyond Project Kayak by studying new technologies coming down the line from the consumer markets. "We are leveraging our Panasonic research labs for the latest technologies in consumer electronics and mobile information technologies, but we aren't really ready to let the competition know what's being planned," says Margis.

While the hardware manufacturers develop new systems, standardisation efforts in the industry are spreading, with a recently launched effort by the WAEA involving the standardisation of digital content management (DCM).

The association set up a working group two months ago with the objective of "developing a cost-effective and non-proprietary, secure digital IFE infrastructure allowing for a single metadata methodology of existing encoding methods with secure content preparation and delivery for playback, creating an environment fostering competition and encouraging participation".

In other words, the association wants one programming format to replace the numerous formats that film and video programme suppliers are forced to supply today due to IFE systems having different interfaces and delivery processes.

Standard interfaces

The introduction of standard interfaces, encryption and playback requirements is expected to result in a "very significant" cost reduction on a per movie and annual basis, says Julian Levin, executive vice-president at Twentieth Century Fox, who is leading the DCM working group.

"The [IFE system] manufacturers - Matsushita, Rockwell and Thales - took the lead in establishing relationships with airlines and assumed they'd get their [video] content supplied to their format, so distributors have been held hostage," says Levin.

The theatrical and home entertainment industries have managed to come up with a single standard, but the in-flight sector requires films in about 20 different formats, says Levin. "If we don't try to do something about it, it will spiral out of control," he says.

The IFE industry agrees that digital transmission is the future and that it can create a single, non-proprietary architecture, says Levin, but he concedes that it will take years to get there. The group is trying to establish a single standard to cover the preparation of material for in-flight use through to its transport and delivery, loading, management, encryption and playback.

The hardware manufacturers are participating in and supporting the standardisation efforts, recognising the economic benefits. "It will also give us more security and might allow airlines to get access to programming they couldn't get before," says Frankenbach. Matsushita's Margis says that it has always been an active supporter of standardisation initiatives, adding: "We'll continue building on that history of support."

Source: Flight International