Passing the Time: Entertainment systems

Sept. 1, 1999

Passing the Time

Entertainment systems

By Jim Sparks

September 1999

Early on, when flying was still considered a novelty, passengers were entertained simply by looking out the windows at the passing scenery. The sights and sounds within the aircraft were ample stimulation for the senses.

Today, with aircraft routinely flying between five and six miles above the earth, sightseeing is all but eliminated. Additionally, the increased number of seats and decreased amount of free space has resulted in the lack of mingling between passengers.

The high volume of business travelers has driven the aviation industry to provide capabilities for business persons to work while in flight. To better meet the need, many business aircraft are in fact, an office in the sky — incorporating highly sophisticated communication and production capabilities, the executive traveler has most of the same capabilities offered while at corporate headquarters. In addition, when business is concluded, relaxation equipment is equally sophisticated.

In most cases carrying along a favorite singer or band is not an option; however, listening to music is still possible through the use of compact discs or cassette tapes. Likewise, a theatre troupe onboard would put a significant dent in the payload. First-run movies, as well as prerecorded performances, can be made available to passengers through the use of videocassettes and digital videodiscs. With the use of satellite communications, an aircraft almost anywhere within the earth's atmosphere can provide its passengers with the latest in news, sports, and financial reports.

Cabin Video Information Systems (CVIS) have been in existence for about 20 years. These systems make it possible for passengers to view geographic maps of the route of flight showing real-time aircraft position along with the flight plan, and even ground covered. In addition, multi-language place names and points of interest are highlighted.

Text pages can also be displayed in a wide array of dialects that list flight information such as ground speed, present altitude, outside air temperature as well as time en-route and time to destination along with distances. Custom graphics, including corporate logos, can be broadcast along with special announcements. Audio briefings for safety or instructions can also be provided and enhanced by video footage.

One company that has been a major contributor to the development of entertainment systems over the years is Airshow Inc. (ASINC). Airshow systems have been installed in over 3,500 corporate aircraft and utilized by over 100 airlines. Since Airshow systems are prevalent in the industry, we will look at a typical Airshow system to illustrate how air entertainment works.

For the system to operate, a Digital Interface Unit (DIU) is used to receive information from the aircraft's onboard long range navigation system, Inertial Navigation System, or Flight Management System as well as from the Air Data System. This information is then processed within the DIU and can be applied to a map of the specific geographical area. Maps are loaded via CD-ROM into the DIU. The current map inventory at ASINC includes North America, Europe, Asia/ North Pacific, South America, Africa/ Middle East and Asia/ South Pacific. These maps can be created and customized for close-up views of most metropolitan areas and include details such as buildings, highways and airport runways. Newer technology gives passengers a more realistic view of the land they are flying over by providing actual satellite images of the earth's surface. Perspective maps are also available enabling topographical information to be presented in a horizontal perspective — much as it would appear from the flight deck on a clear day.

An atlas database can be made available to passengers who wish to contrive future expeditions. By using a computer mouse or electronic pointer, passengers can zoom in on their hometown or explore far off exotic lands. Time zones can also be included so local time can be observed at any position on the map with the simple click of a switch.

The Information Mode provides passengers with up to the minute flight information. This can be customized depending on operator's specifications and can include units of measure for such things as altitude, temperature and speed. One popular device is a Relative Location Indicator (RLI), which can display the aircraft in the center of the video monitor and show cities or other points of interest relative to the position and distance to the aircraft. Video graphics are used to show fixed points such as the main corporate office and in addition, make it possible to reproduce a corporate or company logo, aircraft photograph or artwork and bring it to life while welcoming passengers on board.

A flight deck controller can be activated by the crew for a fully automated safety briefing or to deliver in-flight messages such as "Fasten Seat Belts." By combining video and audio technology, the passenger's attention can be focused on a high-resolution video showing exactly how to operate safety equipment.

The "Airshow Network" has been developed by ASINC to provide aircraft with specific services from the ground. This is accomplished by using the flight phone or Satcom to connect with an information service that will provide Bloomberg Financial News. This service provides customized stocks, bonds, equities, commodities and foreign currencies. CNN enables passengers to keep on top of breaking events throughout the world. The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition alerts to developments in the business world and financial markets; Sports Ticker offers up to the minute scores and standings for the sports that you choose; and Intellicast, which displays current weather maps and a four-day forecast of the aircraft destination. Weather updates can be included for selected custom cities. Executive Office is a feature available to corporate users and gives the advantage of being made aware of information directly related to their specific business. Private company news, corporate reports, personal e-mail, faxes and files can be uplinked directly to the aircraft through this system.

Linking the aircraft to the ground is made possible by using a Data Communication Unit (DCU) in place of the DIU. This new device has the capability to interface with the airborne radio telephone or Satcom system. A mouse controller is provided in the cabin and when the passenger wants to view up to the minute information, all that has to be done is to select the "Update" Queue from the Main Menu displayed on the cabin video monitor. After that, everything is automatic and within a short time, current information is available to all subscribed programs.

In addition, the crew has the ability to obtain Worldwide Satellite Images (WSI) for display in the flight deck. This enables the crew to view any destination airport in the continental United States (CONUS) or Canada. Also, information such as Notice To Airmen (NOTAM) can be updated.

Selection of the proper video equipment requires significant planning. In aircraft, there are always constraints on available space and weight. Other considerations should be given to suitable electrical power and equipment's resistance to electrical spikes and vibration. Ample ventilation is another important consideration along with equipment Electro Magnetic Interference (EMI) emissions.

Video Cassette Players (VCP) have long been a mainstay of home entertainment and numerous varieties are available to the aircraft industry. Different video formats are used for televisions in different areas of the world. In North America, the National Technical Standards Committee (NTSC) determines the arrangement. Unfortunately this means that videotape made in Australia may not work with an NTSC video system unless the player has a selectable output. Four-head VCP's will provide a high degree of resolution to the projected images. Needed features should be considered when selecting a VCP such as Visual Search — most units would include Pause, Play, Stop, Fast Forward and Rewind. As with most home video systems, the remote control is often considered essential equipment and just like with home systems, InfraRed (IR) remotes are routinely installed in aircraft entertainment systems.

Digital Video Discs (DVD) represents a new medium that squeezes an entire feature film on a Compact Disc (CD). In fact, most DVD Players will even accommodate standard audio CDs, so by using this new technology, an audio player could be eliminated from the overall system. The new DVD format offers an extensive array of interactive videos similar to a CD-ROM. Each disc can provide up to eight sound track language options and up to 32 subtitles. Digital control enables frame by frame disc advancement, slow motion, instant jumps to any point on the disc, as well as fast forward, and freezing on a single frame. There is also the ability to program specific segments to play in a preset order or at random. Like a VCP, DVD will also have a specific video output format. For aircraft that travel internationally and may want to show video purchased outside North America, a DVD with a selectable output would be imperative.

Handheld remote control transmitters are every bit as important on the aircraft as in the home. With many cabin features operating on IR technology, one "do all" remote may be used to select an audio or video source, as well as set speaker volumes, light intensity and even control window shades. Infra Red transmitters are in use with passenger headsets allowing a person to move freely about the cabin without being restrained by wires. Locations for IR receivers and transmitters have to be well thought out. Just like at home, if an object is blocking the light beam, the television station will not change and somebody has to get up!

Recent revelations in the in-flight entertainment business is the ability to deliver live television directly to the aircraft. Now the same programming that is available to millions of homes can be seen at 40,000 feet, so the CEO won't have to worry that his home VCR will miss recording "I Love Lucy." In addition, a wide array of commercial free, CD quality music channels are available. This phenomenon is accomplished by using an antenna mounted at the top of the vertical fin that can be positioned to look at a Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) operating in a geostationary earth orbit. The Inertial Reference system will supply the Airshow Multiple Receiver Decoder Unit (MRDU) with present aircraft position.

The MRDU contains internal information on satellite position and will allow a computation to be made which ultimately causes the electric servo motors on the DBS Antenna Unit (DAU) to react and adjust the antenna so it is aligned with the satellite and will continue to maintain alignment as the aircraft travels onward.

The MRDU then processes the Direct TV signal and sends it on to through the normal aircraft video system. This is a direct satellite link operation beneath the clouds or in precipitation is not guaranteed. Even on a clear day, the system may not function on the ramp unless the aircraft IRS is operating. At present this service is only available over the continental United States and its territorial waters.