Smaller is better is the mantra driving aircraft development these days, and it is being heeded by manufacturers of embedded components and systems.
In doing so, these manufacturers are developing technology to address cutting edge in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) demands. With Airbus projecting that 50% of the total in-service fleet of commercial aircraft will feature in-flight connectivity, the clock is ticking: Passengers want a wide choice of high-resolution video content at their seats, and they want broadband internet access too.
Gogo, Reflex Photonics, and TE Connectivity are three major players in the embedded components and systems and in-flight connectivity service provider space. Here is what they are doing to keep up with IFEC demands.
Reflex Photonics sells aerospace optical transceivers deployed at altitudes ranging from sea level up to 35,000 km. Reflex’s optical transceivers are combined with fiber optic cables to provision in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) systems that move a lot of data;, including high resolution Video on Demand (VOD). These transceivers are also suitable for handling large data transfers via in-flight satellite communications systems.
“By transferring the signal from copper traces to optical fibers, one can send high data rate information over up to 100-meter links with Reflex Photonics devices without altering the quality of the signal and doing it in an efficient and secure fashion,” said Tullio Panarello, the company’s industry manager for avionics.
As in other areas of IFEC embedded components/ and systems, size and weight are driving product development. A case in point: Reflex Photonics’ parallel optical modules integrate vertical cavity surface emitting lasers (VCSELs) and passive device (PD) arrays (vertical cavity surface emitting lasers) and PD (passive device) arrays like all commercially available optical transceivers.
“But what distinguishes Reflex’s components is the fact that they occupy 1/10th of the space traditionally needed;, and they can be distributed inside the switch in close vicinity to the field programmable gate array (FPGA) or application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC),” said Panarello.
To keep up with the “‘smaller is better’” trend, Reflex Photonics is now developing new 28 Gbps devices. These are “equivalent to the standard QSFP28 but inside a miniature and rugged package that completely outclasses standard pluggable transceivers in terms of footprint,” Panarello said. “Again, the PCB design must be optimized in order to offer a miniature device and avoid compromising the signal integrity and offer communication performance.”
To meet aviation needs going forward, “we are working on integrating intelligence into optical transceivers,” he said. “We have successfully miniaturized optical interconnects and we believe that the future is in offering more functionalities out of those optical modules.”
TE Connectivity is the world’s largest connector company, according to Russ Graves, the company’s global aerospace development business manager. When it comes to embedded components in aircraft IFEC systems, TE pretty much makes them all;, including electrical connectors, cables, harnesses, and termination devices. Looking to the future, TE has been investing heavily in fiber optic products, which offer improved performance and less weight than conventional copper cabling.
When it comes to IFEC systems, TE is focused on fifth generation, fiber-based IFEC components;, in line with ARINC’s efforts in this area. “The fifth generation is provisioning to support 10GB Ethernet on the aircraft,” said Graves. “The fourth generation was 1GB Ethernet.”
This 10-times speed improvement will filter down from the head-end IFEC server in the avionics bay, through the aircraft’s high-speed network to the monitors and connection devices in each passenger seat. With 10GB, in-aircraft networks will have the capacity to move high bandwidth entertainment content and two-way data transmissions via broadband satellite.
In line with “‘smaller is better,”’, TE has developed a distributed embedded network architecture for aircraft known as MiniMRP (Modular Racking Principle). This system breaks up the standard ‘single big headend server’ one-to-many data architecture into smaller, lighter interconnected computers distributed throughout the aircraft.
“The distributed approach brings the embedded computing power closer to where it is needed,” said Graves. To support this, TE’s MiniMRP hardware uses powered, copper/fiber-connected “small boxes distributed throughout the aircraft. It’s a packaging scheme that allows other companies to create the electronics that go inside the boxes.”
TE’s MiniMRP infrastructure mirrors similar technological advances in the automotive industry, which is also using small IT devices distributed throughout the vehicle to provide “computing where you need it,” said Graves. “It is just a more efficient use of information and networking.”
In making these advances, TE and other aerospace embedded components/systems manufacturers are pushing against a conservative aviation culture; one, one necessarily cautious due to the need to keep passengers and crews safe at 35,000’ feet.
Unfortunately, this caution can stifle progress. For instance, “the standard that defines an aircraft’s headend is covered under ARINC 600, which is a 35 35-year-old standard,” Graves said. “It has not kept pace with changes in electronics architectures that we’ve seen in every other industry.”
That said, Russ Graves does expect the trend towards smaller, faster, and lighter to dominate embedded components/systems development for the foreseeable future. He also expects in-aircraft networks to offer enhanced wireless connections for linking to low earth orbit (LEO) broadband satellites.
“As these LEOs come into service, you’ll see smartphones and computers within the aircraft be able to connect directly to them through onboard Wi-Fi access points,” said Graves. “This is the kind of seamless experience that travelers are looking for.”
Gogo bills itself as the leading global provider of broadband connectivity products and services for aviation. Its products and services are installed/used by thousands of commercial and private aircraft; including fractional and charter ownership operators. Gogo operates an air-to-ground (ATG) network covering contiguous United States plus parts of Canada and Alaska, and provides satellite connectivity worldwide to 20 commercial airlines.
To deliver in-flight connections, “Gogo uses components within our systems that provide similar functions to components in a home PC or home Wi-Fi router,” said Jeremy Tyler, Gogo Business Aviation’s Senior Director of Engineering, Product Development and Operations. “This includes everything from ethernet switch devices and small mobile processors to high-end server processors and solid state hard drives. The difference is that the components selected for aviation require very high reliability and performance while operating in extreme environments.”
As with other areas of the IT world, the trend in embedded components/systems for in-flight connectivity is to go smaller and lighter. This trend is a double-edged sword for Gogo: On the one hand, “New generations of components are getting smaller and providing more features, capacity, and performance that previous generations,” said Tyler. On the other hand, “The challenge is that the brand new and latest generation devices do not always have a proven track record of high reliability or long-term operation in aviation’s stressful thermal and vibration environments.”
This downside means that Gogo’s ability to adopt newer, smaller components in its embedded systems has to be tempered by safety and reliability considerations. The result is that “we are sometimes delayed in transitioning to the latest and greatest technology, and must use a slightly older generation of components to preserve the reliability of the equipment and ensure the continued safe operation of the aircraft,” Tyler said. “With the right suppliers and partners, these concerns can be overcome through exhaustive testing and screening of devices to ensure that they meet the long list of safety, environmental, and reliability requirements”.
One thing appears certain: Aircraft operators want Gogo and other such providers to implement smaller components as soon as possible; and to boost the speed and reliability of these IFEC parts/systems as they do so.
“Size, weight, and power are always under consideration in aviation,” said Tyler. “Equally, end users and customers expect the same performance and experience with the IFEC equipment as they receive from systems in their home or office. This makes for a challenging dynamic of providing the best experience in performance and capacity while still meeting the size, weight, and power constraints.”
“The tradeoffs get even harder when the equipment must be reliable and able to operate in the aviation environment. In the end there is a very complex balancing act which requires weighing all of these factors as part of component selection.”
Looking three to five years down the road, Jeremy Tyler sees no end to this trend. “The technologies will continue to transition to smaller, faster, and more feature rich,” he said. “This is really a never-ending progression that mirrors or sits slightly behind the progress we see in consumer electronics and cutting-edge technologies. It’s exciting to know that the next amazing experience, piece of equipment, or technology sits just around the corner and has a good chance of being completely different than what we have today.”