Getting Rid of Cable: Wireless In-Flight Entertainment Offers New Options for Airlines, Passengers

KELSTERBACH, Germany — March 7, 2013 — In the world of in-flight entertainment (IFE), there’s nothing worse than a “dark flight,” where passengers are forced to watch that movie stored on their laptop for the 15th time, fumble through seat-back magazines for a quick read, or, heaven help us, try to get some work done.

Happily, the world of air travel is looking brighter with a new solution developed by Lufthansa Systems, one of the top IT providers for the aviation industry. Lufthansa Systems’ BoardConnect is an in-flight infotainment system that can deliver a rich variety of content wirelessly throughout the cabin, accessible from almost any device.

In-Flight Infotainment at Your Fingertips
BoardConnect allows passengers to wirelessly access a range of content through their own personal devices.

Instead of stringing cables throughout the plane across hundreds of seats to power seat-back screens, BoardConnect uses a single Windows Embedded Server and distributes its content through a network of wireless access points installed into the aircraft’s ceiling.

According to Norbert Mueller, senior vice president at Lufthansa Systems, airlines can use BoardConnect to deliver their own branded experience and offer whatever kind of content they want — movies or music protected by digital rights management software, e-books, catalogs, menus and more.

“Airlines could offer a wide variety of content,” Mueller says. “From the beginning we decided to give customers and ourselves the option to integrate almost any application. If someone comes up with a clever way to entertain or inform passengers, why shouldn’t it run on our platform?”

Passengers access the content either through tablets and seat-back screens provided by the airlines, or using their own laptops, tablets, smartphones and other mobile devices. Using the system, passengers can watch streaming on-board movies. If an airline decides to provide tablets to the passengers as a service, it may even show “early window” content from Hollywood due to BoardConnect’s approval to serve movies not yet released to DVD.

“Videos shown on flights must be protected with an approved form of digital rights management,” Mueller says. “The BoardConnect system uses Microsoft PlayReady technology to facilitate DRM for video streaming, so all content is more secure.”

Since the solution eliminates the need for all those cables and screens built into the aircraft, it also makes the plane lighter, which can result in a surprising savings of fuel: Lufthansa Systems estimates that a single Boeing 767 with 260 seats could save as much as 80 tons of fuel per year just by going wireless and eliminating more than 1,100 pounds of classic IFE hardware.

Though the system is simple by design, Mueller says a lot of work has gone into making it airworthy. One of the first challenges was to make the network efficient enough to handle the throughput required to serve potentially hundreds of devices spanning the Windows, iOS and Android platforms, especially considering the bandwidth needed for streaming video.

“At a public hot spot you have maybe 50 people with low bandwidth requirements,” says Mueller. “In an aircraft you have 300 people all using the same wireless network with high-quality content, which requires a lot of bandwidth. We cater to that by fitting several wireless access points throughout the cabin and actively optimizing network traffic so there is always ample bandwidth available.”

Another challenge was to build a system that not only works 100 percent of the time, but that also doesn’t put any extra burden on the crew to keep it operational.

“Our system switches on automatically in accordance with regulatory requirements at the appropriate altitude,” he says. “The crew doesn’t have to start anything or push any buttons, and we’re using a special implementation of Windows Server 2008 R2 for Embedded Systems that makes sure the system is always clean and robust.”

Of course, you can’t just install an intranet into an airplane without buy-off from the world’s air-traffic regulatory bodies. In the U.S., every aircraft has what’s known as a type certificate that comes from the original manufacturer. Every additional component an airline wishes to install, electronic or otherwise, must obtain what the Federal Aviation Administration calls a supplemental type certificate, or STC.

“Components must pass a variety of tests to ensure they’re not flammable, can handle pressurization and that they don’t interfere with flight operations,” Mueller says. “This requires a lot of effort and paperwork, and the process must be repeated for every aircraft type.”

The FAA as well as its European and Australian counterparts have already approved the system, and BoardConnect is being tested on passenger flights with Australian and European airlines. The product has won two coveted industry awards for its innovative passenger experience: at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, Germany, and last year’s APEX Expo in Long Beach, Calif.

In the future, passengers could see a variety of implementations as airlines explore what works best. Mueller says the system provides a backbone for IT in the aircraft that could be used in other ways. It could link through Windows Embedded handheld devices, for example, to form an intelligent system that collects operational data to optimize operations, identify cost savings and create other efficiencies.

Says Mueller, “If the airline collects information on how much soda was served, they can place an order on the ground or even from the air to optimize their catering processes.”

While potential uses of the system remain to be seen, for now there’s no doubt that BoardConnect will offer a small revolution in the passenger experience, bringing a much wider variety of in-flight entertainment options, and bringing them to many flights that didn’t have IFE at all before, such as short to medium routes using the Airbus A320s and Boeing 737s of the world. But with such a flexible, adaptable solution built by Lufthansa Systems, the sky’s the limit.

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