Interview with Jaime McGrath, Director, Cabin Completions, Rockwell Collins
Producing a complete, hi-definition cabin management system, including in-flight entertainment (IFE) that is future-proofed against the rapid advances that characterise the digital consumer entertainment space, is not a simple matter. Rolling out such a system across multiple aircraft types adds a further non-trivial level of complexity. Rockwell Collins first introduced its Venue hi-definition system early in 2007 and as the company’s director, cabin completions, Jaime McGrath, notes, the system has already catered for substantial advances in digital technology, and is well placed to handle further innovation.
To date the largest aircraft Rockwell Collins has installed Venue on are the Boeing BBJ 737 and the Airbus 319. “We had one client with 35 in-seat touch-screen monitors, while one of our most recent projects is a 45-seat aircraft with a crew rest area, a lounge area and higher density seating at the back,” he comments. The challenge posed by larger aircraft in terms of the installation of a cabin entertainment and management system is not the switching panels, which can be clustered off an Ethernet loop, but the number of screens and wireless audio visual streams the system can handle simultaneously. “Venue is designed with a very lightweight fibre optic cable loop under the floor. It is a 67 gigabit system, which is a tremendous bandwidth, not just for today, but for what might be on the horizon in the next seven to eight years,” McGrath says.
One of the developments that could challenge cabin management systems and In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) systems over the next few years is the move by the entertainment industry and TV executives to push beyond hi-definition TV. As McGrath points out, at this year’s Electronics Consumer Show, displays and video walls were getting larger, driving the need for higher resolution imaging. Visual data sets are increasing in complexity, putting massively increased bandwidth demand onto the backbone of any in-flight network. At the same time, end-user expectations for crystal clear images are being set by today’s generation of smart phones and tablets, and when high net worth owners and passengers settle back in their seats to watch an in-flight film of their choice, they are increasingly going to expect the picture quality to be ultra-high definition. Instead of the 1080 pixels of hi-def TV, the screen resolution could four times that within a few years.
“If you are delivering uncompressed content, the demands made by a next-generation monitor could be 12Gb per second. An owner might have to wait twelve months or more to take delivery of a jet and another 12 to 18 months if it is being delivered as a green aircraft to a completions centre. You can see some real breakthroughs happening in the IFE space over that time and if your new jet cannot support the next best thing that comes along, you are going to have a dissatisfied customer. This is where the kind of future-proofing that we provide to our customers becomes crucially important,” McGrath says. On this point, as can be seen from EVA’s conversation with Gulfstream president Larry Flynn in this issue (p. 24) a buyer ordering a new Gulfstream 650 today will not get delivery before July 2017 – more than enough time for radical change in the entertainment and broadband space.
Right now today’s HDTVs, which have set the standard in IFE on the larger business jets for a few years now, can display 1920 by 1080 pixel video, but what you actually see depends on the source data, and whether you are viewing 1080i or 1080p content. The ‘i’ here stands for interlaced, while the ‘p’ is for ‘progressive’. The real broadcast speed for 1080i is 30 frames per second, not the 60 frames per second advertised. For technical reasons, namely to make hi-def less demanding on bandwidth, each full frame is broken into two ‘passes’ of 1950 x 540 pixels, so you get hte top half scanned first, then the bottom half. This is too fast for the eye to see a flicker and the picture quality looks hi-def. Progressive does the whole frame on a single pass, and for the viewer, this just looks crisper, particularly if a lot is going on in your movie at that moment.
McGrath points out that today the only time a Venue system on a business jet is likely to be streaming 1080p to a monitor is if the user is playing a movie using a Blu-ray player or playing a high-definition video game system. Ordinary TV and most wireless content can stream at 1080i, which is a complicated way of saying that Venue can deal with streaming 1080i live TV to some monitors and handle up to 15 of the more demanding 1080p streams at the same time. That is a lot of bandwidth.
Venue also comes with a wireless Internet loop for compressed data, which isn’t a great way to stream to a large screen HDTV, where you want native uncompressed datasets to eliminate latency and generate the best image, but is ideal for viewers using tablets and smart phones. In today’s ‘bring your own device’ world, IFE has to be open to just about any device that a user wants to bring with them on the flight. “With compressed data to a tablet, when someone is viewing on the ground over the normal Internet, the best quality they are getting is probably about 8Mb to 12Mb per second. We can handle a high number of streams of that quality simultaneously so capacity is not a problem,” he says.
We have to keep our finger on the pulse of the consumer market and understand what could be making its way out to an aircraft, and what really will be a valuable addition
“In addition to business jets of all shapes and sizes, Rockwell Collins is also developing an IFE system, called PAVES, to market to regional transport jet operators. “We have a full in-seat video solution that does hi-definition at the seatback monitor,” McGrath says. In the single-aisle air transport jet market, particularly in South East Asia and China, IFE is a necessity. Passengers simply expect it.”
For light jets, most solutions are based around a server streaming wirelessly to the passenger’s own tablet, so that is a much simpler solution, and here too, Rockwell Collins has an offering. “We get calls from a whole range of potential customers, from end users to designers and modifications houses and we talk them through the technical merits of the various solutions we have to their specific requirements,” he comments. Rockwell Collins then trains staff at its authorised distributors on the installation. “We bring our 20-plus years of experience of the industry to the table, particularly on issues such as the wiring and where the best position is to house our boxes. Once the design specifications are frozen we provide the hardware and write the software to drive the IFE. The modifications house and the end-user can come to our laboratory and interact with a complete replica of their system that has a look and feel that has been customised to them,” he explains.
Minor changes are accommodated within the quoted price and testing of the installed system takes around five or six days. “We make sure that no unwanted surprises occur late in the completions process. With legacy IFE systems, even a small last-minute change by the user could be huge, with dramatic cost implications, but with Venue we can often accommodate small changes inside the same day since it is all software driven,” he notes.
“We have to keep our finger on the pulse of the consumer market and understand what could be making its way out to an aircraft, and what really will be a valuable addition. For example, we have a proprietary solution, Skybox, that can wirelessly distribute Digital Rights Management (DRM) content and this has been in the market for over a year now,” he says. Rockwell Collins has been awarded a further five VIP narrow body contracts for Venue in the last 10 months, so McGrath is confident that the company is well positioned in what is, after all, one of the most hotly contested markets in business aviation.