In-flight entertainment manufacturers are getting their latest systems ready for their biggest test yet - the Airbus A380

The major in-flight entertainment (IFE) equipment manufacturers are stepping up to their latest challenge in developing interactive IFE systems for the newest and largest aircraft platform, the Airbus A380.

After the early days of interactive IFE when systems caused airlines and airframe manufacturers teething problems and longer-term reliability issues, manufacturers are now conducting much more pre-service entry testing.

They have also focused on addressing customers' weight and size requirements while boosting system bandwidth to support ever-evolving entertainment and communication applications.

Two of the three leading manufacturers of in-seat interactive IFE equipment, Matsushita Avionics Systems and Thales, are preparing new hardware for the biggest test yet - flight tests on 550-seat A380 aircraft next year.

Matsushita's latest offering is the eX2, a development of its market-leading System 2000/3000/3000i with elements of its eFX equipment for narrowbodies. The manufacturer has reached a certain level of maturity with the eX2, says Chris Lundquist, general manager product planning and business development, with "firm system design nailed" and reaching the red-label equipment stage.

The manufacturer is now moving into the integration and testing phase and a 550-passenger system test rack will be up and running with Airbus in Hamburg in October, with a similar test rack operational at Matsushita's laboratories in Lake Forest, California.

In the second quarter of 2005, Matsushita will deliver eX2 systems for A380serial number MSN007 for route-proving to be conducted from September 2005, says Lundquist. The system will be ready for A380 deliveries to customers from March 2006.

This level of system development and testing means major problems with entry into service of interactive IFE are a thing of the past, says Lundquist. "There are a lot more things in place to improve reliability before a system ever gets into service or the design is completed," he adds. "The industry has learned that what happened in the past cannot happen again."

Billion-dollar deal

Matsushita is now "heavily into the sales process" and already has eX2 orders, announcing a $1 billion deal with Emirates at this year's Farnborough air show. Emirates will put the hardware on the first of its 45 A380-800s due for delivery in October 2006, plus 20 Airbus A340-600HGWs for delivery from June 2007.

Matsushita has three airline customers for eX2, with orders for 60-plus aircraft, says Lundquist, who declines to name its other customers. "We've had an extremely positive response," he adds. The manufacturer is working from a strong customer base, with 2,700 aircraft flying with Matsushita IFE, of which 40% are widebodies.

Lundquist believes a number of factors have helped it secure an early eX2 customer base. "Our history of delivering video-on-demand [VOD] systems serves us well," he says, in addition to the eX2's media management capabilities, vast network and reduced size and weight compared with earlier systems.

Reducing the size, weight and power consumption of the hardware has been a key focus, pushed by airlines and the airframer. Lundquist says Matsushita set itself a 30% reduction target on earlier systems, but has achieved 40%.

Reductions came from more in-seat integration, which significantly reduced the wiring; an integrated distribution of all entertainment over an ethernet network; reduced size seat boxes; distributed electronics incorporated in the display; and a four-seat box configuration. At the same time, system bandwidth has been increased. "There is no limit to what an airline can put on the system," says Lundquist.

The eX2 will offer a number of new capabilities that the manufacturer declines to discuss, but it will greatly expand applications and link the passengers to off-aircraft applications. Features will include those that passengers are getting used to with interactive systems, such as audio- and video-on-demand, shopping, games, SMS/e-mail, interactive maps and destination information. It will also include integrated noise cancelling, personal electronic device power and menus for IFE customisation. "It will be stunning," says Lundquist.

Matsushita believes the eX2 will grow to form the backbone of system development over the next 10 to 20 years. "We believe that the way we have designed the architecture means we will be able to use new technologies incrementally," he says. Further new developments will be driven by the next new aircraft developments, such as the Boeing 7E7, he predicts.

Thales passed a major milestone in the quest to get its new TopSeries i-5000 IFE system installed on the A380 in August when the prototype in the manufacturer's Irvine, California laboratory met with the airframe manufacturer's approval. The i-5000 system is due to be installed on Airbus flight-test aircraft MSN002 next year for flight tests.

The system has been in final development at the Irvine laboratory where a 550-seat test system is up and running, says Joe Patti, director of marketing. Representatives from the airframe manufacturer performed testing and evaluation of the system and accepted the laboratory unit after the tests went well, he says. Three minor issues were revealed, which will be fixed with a software update in October.

The tests were followed by the shipment of 50 i-5000 units to Airbus for further testing by the manufacturer, with 550 seat sets to go to Europe next February for installation on the aircraft.

The i-5000 is the latest member of Thales' TopSeries family, which comprises three main subsystems - the i-2000 providing overhead video; the i-3000 in-seat distributed video system offering up to 66 channels; and the i-4000 audio- and video-on-demand (A/VOD) in-seat system with high-capacity servers for video, audio, games and web-based applications. TopSeries systems are flying on more than 30 aircraft, with customers including Japan Airlines, UK tour operator MyTravel Airways, Middle East Airlines and Royal Brunei Airlines. Also, Bangkok Airways has ordered the i-2000 for its A320s and Etihad Airways has selected the i-4000 for its new A330s.

Although Thales has yet to secure a customer for the i-5000, it hopes to announce orders at next week's World Airline Entertainment Association show following the conclusion of a number of competitions, including Air France, Lufthansa, Malaysia Airlines and Qantas.

After extensive testing of the i-5000, the system will have several years of in-service experience by the time customers start receiving their A380s in 2006, says Patti.

Boosting capacity

The i-5000 has a fibre-optic gigabit ethernet backbone, replacing the 100baseT ethernet of the i-4000, significantly boosting system capacity. "We took the opportunity offered by the high-capacity fibre-optic network to switch from analogue to digital delivery of broadcast video, with consequent improvements in picture quality," says Patti.

The system will provide A/VOD to every seat on the aircraft. "Theoretically, the number of broadcast channels is limited only by the amount of storage capacity of the servers," he says. "A typical Thales A380 customer will have 6.6 terabytes of storage.

"We have exploited the internet-protocol connectivity of TopSeries to provide customers with powerful system and content management facilities."

Games, shopping, SMS/e-mail, internet/intranet and in-seat power will all be standard options, plus new interactive functions that Patti declines to reveal.

Ethernet is a "clean architecture" that makes sense for IFE system use, says Patti, adding that it is becoming the standardised architecture for networks throughout the world.

Thales says reductions in size, weight and power consumption with the i-5000 compared with earlier systems have been made possible by using the higher-speed ethernet network, along with advances in storage technology and highly integrated processor technology.

"The high-speed network allowed us to reduce the RF components in the i-5000 from those used in the i-1000 to i-4000 systems," says Patti. "This reduces the overall system weight and power consumption. For example, the i-5000 seat box is smaller, lighter and requires less power, yet it services four seats instead of three."

The i-5000 head-end servers are the same size as those for the i-4000, although the storage capacity is more than doubled, which can reduce the number of servers required, he adds.

The in-seat video displays have also contributed to a significant reduction in power and weight, achieved by incorporating recent developments in integrated processor technology. Overall, display weight has been cut by up to 40% and power consumption by 30%, says Patti.

Thales is already looking at new concepts for larger monitors and hand controls incorporating touch-screens based on high-brilliance LEDs, he says.

Unlike its major competitors, Rockwell Collins has not been contracted by Airbus to supply its eTES platform for an A380 test aircraft. "In the case of the A380, our own internal eTES development schedule conflicts with a very aggressive Airbus schedule for new IFE systems offerability," says Tommy Dodson, vice-president and general manager of Rockwell Collins Passenger Systems.

Rockwell Collins is also reluctant to discuss its IFE system development plans, having been stung by criticism after teething problems with the entry into service of its eTES platform. The manufacturer declined to answer Flight International's questions on its plans for eTES, saying: "Rockwell Collins fully expects to support our IFE customers for the present with eTES and into the future as OEMs and our customers require."

Firm orders

The eTES equipment, which was developed from the manufacturer's Total Entertainment System (TES), is currently in service on 30 aircraft operated by Air France, Lufthansa and Qantas, with 160 firm orders. Most recently the system was selected by Air New Zealand for eight new Boeing 777-200ERs and retrofit on seven Boeing 747-400s.

The US manufacturer says that "as with all new state-of-the-art systems, there were issues along the way, some anticipated and some not", but the system is moving into its "development maturity phase".



Source: Flight International