Etihad Airways Engineering has converted the oldest Airbus A320 in its parent carrier's fleet into a flying testbed for new technologies.
Parked on the Dubai static line, the 25-year-old narrowbody (registered A6-EIZ) is in the early stages of a trial of a new high-speed in-flight wi-fi system on behalf of Mubadala-owned Yahsat and network provider Du.
The testbed will aid the development and certification of the new technologies.
"Rather than being confined to Ku- or Ka-band services, Etihad's Wi-Fly+ is a hybrid system, benefiting from the advantages of both," says Bernhard Randerath, vice-president of design, engineering and innovation at the Abu Dhabi carrier.
Using a roof-mounted dual-band antenna, supported by Hughes Network Systems and Carlisle, an intelligent beam switch handles the transition between the Ka- and Ku-band systems. Speeds of up to 200mbps are possible, with 67mbps so far achieved in initial testing.
Once the system launched, Etihad Airways Engineering will be responsible for the whole certification and integration process.
To be achieved with supplemental type certification, customer-proving flights may follow to gain feedback. Originally configured with 136 seats, the testbed's capacity has since fallen by around one-third.
Service entry could be beginning 2019, assuming there are no delays with the approvals process.
Randerath believes a successful roll-out of Wi-Fly+ will benefit both passengers and the airline, with the latter gaining real-time aircraft data supporting its vision of an intelligent cabin for the future.
"What we are doing is different to other suppliers. Etihad is validating the newest technologies through crew and passenger feedback by using the flying testbed," notes Randerath.
"More technology products are on the way to be tested. The unique connectivity system is one important key, big data solutions, as well as completely new intelligent interior equipment are the next technology steps."
He adds: "We are discussing the integration of some of these technologies on the Etihad fleet already."