The future of iPads inflight

3 Aug 2010 by BusinessTraveller

UK company Bluebox Avionics is at the forefront of in-flight entertainment this year, with its announcement that Australian low-cost carrier Jetstar is trialling iPads on its domestic network.

Jetstar is one of the first airlines in the world to trial iPads. The intention is for the iPads to provide in-flight entertainment with movies, TV programmes, eBooks, music videos, games and CDs. Jetstar passengers will pay $10 (Australian) to rent the iPad on board.

The iPads are being supplied though IFE company Bluebox Avionics, which offers both fixed IFE systems (ie: those built into seats) as well as mobile devices that can used for IFE purposes.

“Most IFE systems are stuck in a rut and haven’t really significantly increased their capability in the last 10 years,” says Stuart. “Think how far gaming has moved on. Hollywood is outstripped by gaming in terms of revenue by 4 to 1, yet in an in-flight context we are still at Tetris level because the fixed systems are under powered.”

One of the challenges is that traditional IFE systems use a central server to stream content to the hundreds of seats on an aircraft. It’s a system which presents many challenges.

“Servers are on a hiding to nothing.” says Stuart, “They are extremely heavy for the airline to fly around and the wiring in the aircraft weighs even more. Then when, for instance, everyone suddenly demands to watch Toy Story 3 there are problems delivering, so much so that some aircraft have two servers on board. There are also problems of reliability.”

Stuart contrasts this with Bluebox’s “seat-centric” approach.

“There are less reliability issues, the CPUs in the set back units are low power consumption, low heat, and leverage the low costs associated with the IT industry, and the weight saving is, of course, phenomenal. Airlines are sick of paying huge amounts of money flying round huge amounts of weight and which often causes a lot of hassle for customers when it isn’t reliable.”

The airline industry’s well-documented financial problems also made replacing these systems difficult, and so it was in response to this that Bluebox decided to develop a vertically integrated system that ranged from portable players to fixed seat back systems on aircraft.

“Portables are a cheap but powerful solution for airlines who don’t want to invest huge amounts in expensive and heavy embedded systems on the aircraft,” says Stuart. 

The iPad is something like the fifth generation of device the company has supplied, with existing deals, using other portable devices such as Samsung, Asus and Archos, with Bmi, El Al, Jet2, Air Astana, Air Baltic and Iceland Express.

“All of them have portables on part of their fleets, and it’s a good solution when you have a mixed fleet of different ages with a mish mash of different systems on board which is typical for legacy carriers,” Stuart explains.

Portable units are more easily replaced and deliver all the consumer electronics advances that all of us have become familiar with, delivering Playstation gaming technology as well as playing audio, movies and managing to create an experience for ebooks and magazines that is credible. Challenges remain, not least battery life for long haul flights.

“Battery logistics is the number one issue for any portable device inflight. Battery technology is 25 years behind existing consumer technology but that will change over the next 18-24 months when we get the next generation of batteries.

“The backbone of our embedded system utilises all the advances of portable technology embedded in the seat with the addition of sophisticated wireless control. Essentially the entry level of our suite of products is portable devices which you then integrate into the aircraft fabric as more services and capability are required such as map telemetry data, passenger call bell/lights and so on. Each one of the devices is connected, and so we can control them over the network and shut them down and reset them individually if there is a problem.”

Stuart describes the iPad as “a great piece of kit, it’s a superb looking thing – ergonomically we haven’t seen a device better looking or more useful”, but like those other devices it still has to be made “fit for purpose in the environment it will be in, making sure all content is secure.”

“We can’t just give people the devices and let them play with it. You have to lock it down, repurpose it on a software level and build other applications around it. Apple designed a platform to deliver a commercial model for a specific market, so we’ve had to deconstruct this a bit, to make it work in the IFE market space, this has meant removing the iTunes application and removing some configuration items.”

It means that the iPads being used, although externally resembling the ones sold commercially, will be a different beast to use, mainly because of DRM (Digital Rights Management) issues. “If the airline has a deal for early window content, pre-DVD, you can’t have people taking that content away with them on their own iPads.”

So can Stuart see a time when consumer iPads and other electronic devices can be plugged straight into the IFE system?

“Most current IFE systems share critical wiring and software, so not presently,” says Stuart. “I would think airline engineers would be a bit wary about that. The system you have at the moment where you plug in a camera and view your content, you’re just plugging into the seat monitor, which is a different thing altogether.”

Still, Stuart admits that “Open gate, two-way traffic is an interesting proposition and can be done.”

For Jetstar and other airlines, systems such as these are driven by airline’s interest in ancillary revenues – in other words, charging for what was previously either not offered, or offered as part of the ticket price.

For Bluebox, the ultimate aim is for deals with the Original Engineering Manufacturers (Airbus, Boeing Embraer) to be fitted to the aircraft before it is delivered to the airline customers.

For more information visit blueboxavionics.com, jetstar.com.
Tom Otley

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