Celebrities and the world’s business elite all share one thing in common when they fly: the desire to have the same kind of connectivity and entertainment options they enjoy on the ground at their fingertips.
In fact, nearly 9 in 10 passengers brings at least one personal electronic device on board, while those carrying multiple internet-enabled devices for talk, text, and music and video streaming continue to increase, according to Richard Nordstrom, Rockwell Collins’ senior director of global marketing.
These sophisticated flyers are often early tech adopters; they expect to be able to create their own unique cabin experience, using their own devices, apps and mobile content on board.
“Passengers are looking for a state-of-the-art connectivity experience,” says Mark van Berkel, president and CEO of TrueNorth, an SD company and cabin communications technology innovator based in Ottawa, Ontario.
What is unique to the business jet market, he adds, is the desire for a shared experience, which puts added requirements on integrating the device.
“In a commercial airline, you put in your ear buds and pretty much want to be left alone. On a private aircraft, it’s like you’ve invited someone into your living room,” he says, pointing out that passengers may want to share what they are watching or streaming with others on a larger screen in the plane’s cabin.
“Everyone wants their news, their sports updates, and there is a huge drive toward streaming video — watching news and sports live or in real time,” adds Ken Bantoft, CTO of Satcom Direct.
Satcom Direct recently acquired TrueNorth Avionics, a move that Satcom officials say will enable the company to deliver a complete connected aircraft serving heads of state, VIPs and high-net-worth individuals.
“Apple devices tend to make up about 60% of the devices used on business jets across the fleet,” adds Bantoft, basing that figure on annual estimates.
Until recently, this kind of bandwidth-rich and use-your-own-device environment wasn’t possible. According to Bantoft, what’s changed is the rollout of high-bandwidth Ka-band networks such as Inmarsat’s Global Xpress. “We weren’t able to achieve true quality streaming at a mass market level until about six months ago” when these services came online, he says.
Business jet airframe suppliers and service providers globally are increasingly looking at how to leverage this new bandwidth to give passengers a better in-flight connectivity experience.
To keep pace with the rapid rate of change in consumer electronics, Bombardier last spring unveiled a major cabin management system (CMS) upgrade for the Global 5000 and 6000. Leveraging Rockwell Collins’ Venue CMS with the 67 gb/sec fiber-optic backbone of Bombardier’s Ka-band high-speed internet system, the package gives users the ability to connect their Android and iOS tablet devices over a Bluetooth connection.
“Customizability is a key driver in the design of the CMS/IFE experience,” explains Mathieu Noel, Bombardier Business Aircraft’s manager of global product strategy global. “Each one of our customers is unique and we go to great lengths to tailor each and every experience.”
A key enabler of the service is the Ka-band high-speed internet technology that Noel says gives passengers “the home-like, intuitive streaming experience they’ve become familiar with. Ka-band really is a testament to the power of combining a reliable high-speed connectivity solution with a flexible, intuitive cabin management system.”
Bombardier isn’t the only innovator pushing to offer faster, more seamless services for today’s connected business air traveler.
In March, Gogo received a supplemental type certificate for its Biz 4G service, which taps into the company’s existing air-to-ground network and technology of more than 250 towers and fiber backhaul, according to a March 9 press release. The 4G equipment package will incorporate dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi service and a host of other features, all from a single, lightweight box. The new technology will provide an industry-leading 4G experience with superior connectivity for passengers. Gogo currently serves more than 4,000 business aircraft.
TrueNorth began offering its airborne connectivity service, connected.aero, last year. The company described it as aviation’s first hybrid cloud solution that can amplify bandwidth and enhance the in-flight connectivity experience to be more like what passengers experience on the ground. It addresses the challenges of slower speeds and dropped connections that could occur when a jet flies through different satellite coverage areas.
Hamburg-based Lufthansa Technik says that business jet and VVIP aircraft owners can now order a new subscription service that allows them to stream a wide selection of licensed Hollywood Studio movies and TV shows. The service, nicemedia, is powered by Satcom Direct and allows passengers to playback movies on their devices and on embedded displays. They do not need an internet connection on board to unlock the digital rights management keys to view content.
“Our experience from customers ordering this solution is that most of them want the latest movie titles and the biggest Hollywood blockbusters on board their aircraft,” says Gerolf Dietel, marketing and communication manager of Lufthansa Technik’s product division, Original Equipment Innovation. “Our partnership with Satcom Direct allows us to reach a large percentage of the total market, and you don’t need a nice system to subscribe to the service. Satcom Direct will deliver a ‘smart-box’ solution that streams the movies to your personal devices and can also be wired to bulkhead mounted displays with an HDMI input.”
For firms like Lufthansa Technik, collaboration with ground-based application developers is critical to anticipating what customers want at 35,000 feet. Dietel says his company has a group of experts who work with “some of the best consumer companies that develop entertainment technologies.”
“This enables us to get new technologies certified and flying. Furthermore, our nice system is based on Ethernet, which allows the integration of all new technologies built for LAN and Wi-Fi,” Dietel added.
Even as business jet customers continue to push for flexible, fast and rich entertainment and connectivity experiences, they also expect to get it affordably at price points they enjoy on the ground. That is not something to be a reality any time soon, according to van Berkel.
He points to Moore’s law, in which computing power would dramatically increase and decrease in relative cost at an exponential pace — every 18 months. “Aerospace is completely inverse of the second part of Moore’s law,” he says. “Things get faster and better, but never cheaper.”
Van Berkel adds that he thinks prices will go down over time, especially on the services side because providers will have more bandwidth and capability.
Satcom Direct’s CTO says one networking trend getting traction within business aviation circles is private networking, driven in large part by the explosion in the number of personal electronic devices passengers bring on board.
“A plane with six passengers may have 22 Wi-Fi-enabled devices on board. Management of the Wi-Fi network and the internet connection to prevent unwanted traffic and ensure you have enough throughput to support all the communications and entertainment that people want to consume becomes a challenge,” he says.
SD Private Network interconnects with satellite and air-to-ground connectivity providers via the SD Data Center in Melbourne, Florida, and its multiple points of presence worldwide. Satcom Direct’s data center performs daily vulnerability assessments to check for software patch updates and detect and eradicate malware. The company has teamed up with global providers such as Panasonic, ViaSat and Inmarsat to enable this solution. Through SD Custom Routing, a company’s airborne data traffic is delivered from the connectivity provider on the aircraft directly to its corporate network, bypassing public routing and the internet.
“You then can apply your corporate security policies to handle, block or deliver information according to your specifications. The traffic goes directly over your corporate network, allowing the aircraft to finally be a true extension of the office,” Bantoft says. He notes that corporate security policies apply so that passengers in the cabin enjoy the same network security protection on the plane as they do at the office.
Bantoft also notes that his company offered a private networking option before, but only recently has the market been receptive to it. “It’s been an uphill battle. We’ve joked that we were there two years too early. It’s one of those things; we sort of had to wait for it to gain traction. Now, everybody is talking about it,” he says.
So where is the world of in-flight connectivity headed next for business jet customers? Bantoft points to Marvel Studios’ second Iron Man blockbuster in which billionaire Tony Stark, while in court, uses a slim, transparent cellphone to project data onto a monitor. “That’s where I’d like to see things go with in-flight entrainment. I want to share what I’m watching,” he says.
“The internet continues to expand its boundaries, providing users with the ability to interact with the environment by simply voicing or gesturing a command,” says Bombardier’s Noel, explaining that this “smarter” environment will include a streamlined, intuitive human-machine interface.
“It is not farfetched to believe we will strive for the same end goal [in the cabin experience],” he says. “A ‘smart’ cabin that learns from our customers and operates more as an extension of their desires rather than a work tool would provide what we believe to be the pinnacle of business aviation cabin experiences.” AVS