There had already been many false starts in the industry. “The e-enabled aircraft has been promised for so long and tried a handful of ways without significant success. There have been many versions tested but with inconsistent results,” says Thales Avionics director of connectivity Andrew Thompson.
In aviation, the issues with wireless data transfer are well known and manifold. Explains Thompson: “Cellular and airport Wi-Fi networks can become congested, and can be subject to various interfering technologies and environmental conditions. For instance, Wi-Fi networks are typically owned by airports [and] are often over-utilised and under-specified for aircraft data transfer requirements. Cellular networks face the same challenges, with additional potential hurdles such as inconsistent roaming and frequency structures.”
From the aircraft perspective, which typically has Wi-Fi and cellular enabled devices hosted in different products, Thales opted to simplify. “We knew the solution required that we streamline the data transfer and create a solution that eliminated the multiple proprietary transceivers,” says Thompson.
Therefore Thales combined multiple, actively controlled, radios into a single line replaceable unit (LRU).
Current wireless solutions typically involve the syncing or transfer of only critical data: passenger manifests, aircraft logs and the like. Where Thales and Proximetry challenged themselves was in the promise of transferring all data, including the notoriously bandwidth-sapping IFE content.
But are the ever-increasing bandwidth demands of IFE content actually a potential ‘show-stopper’ for wireless data transfer nirvana? Rich Salter, chief technical officer for Lumexis certainly thinks so, “for large content files, it simply doesn’t have sufficient bandwidth”.
Yet, Tracy Trent, CEO of Proximetry offers the counterpoint, “At present, with a 45-minute turn, you could load two movies with GateSync.”
In terms of raw numbers, wireless data transfer always lags behind wired systems. Thales says GateSync can transfer 4GB/hour to 50 aircraft simultaneously, whilst Thompson claims, “In demonstrations we have proven it can transfer up to 18GB/hour across five aircraft.”
Compare this with a more traditional content loader unit, such as Lumexis’ offering, which can load hundreds of GB/hour, and it would seem the GateSync option was easily beaten. But are pure data-transfer figures even relevant? “The point is, because we’re using a multicast system, such constraints aren’t even applicable. We’re hitting many aircraft all at once, something not possible with standard cellular or Wi-Fi solutions,” says Proximetry’s Trent.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE NETWORK
Arguably the most novel aspect, and where it differs from previous wireless data transfer solutions, is that GateSync is effectively a ‘network of networks’. “It uses many technical innovations such as multicasting, plane-to-plane meshing, and the ability to couple private and public networks into a single virtual platform,” says Thompson.
Furthermore, the aircraft themselves become a significant node in that network, rather than merely a passive receiver of data. Key to this capability is Proximetry’s ‘AirSync’ software, providing a hitherto unseen level of network intelligence.
“The aircraft transceiver can act as a base station for those airports where there is no WiMAX network or the aircraft may be experiencing network shadowing,” explains Proximetry’s Trent. By meshing resources autonomously, it provides abilities such as aircraft cross loading. This means, that theoretically, when sat on the tarmac, one aircraft, with more up-to-date content, could become a virtual hub for the other.
But IFE content-loading challengers like Lumexis argue that a wireless product will simply not keep pace, “While the bandwidth offered by wireless continues to increase year on year, the bandwidth needed for content is increasing even faster,” argues Salter.
“For example, first it was high definition video at 720p that we needed to handle, and now it is 1080p. At the recent CES show [in Las Vegas] suppliers were showing screens with 4000-line resolution, and the Hollywood studios are looking forward to supplying higher and higher resolution movies to fill those screens,” Salter adds, arguing a more evolutionary product, such as their own FTTS (fibre-to-the-screen), makes more sense; a fibre optic distribution of IFE content in the aircraft, coupled with an on-board content loader unit for data loading. “Just plug it in and it loads in the background as the airplane flies,” explains Salter.
However, although established dogma dictates content is loaded, in one hit, ‘on the turn’, GateSync’s multicast method is similar in theory to the principle of BitTorrent systems used for file sharing on personal computers; although the bandwidth throughput of each individual node may seem meagre, the combination of them all trickling data continuously adds up. No one, least of all content producers in Hollywood studios, would argue against a BitTorrent’s efficacy!
CHANGING WITH THE TIMES
The GateSync hardware is ever evolving, “It’s been undergoing evolution for nearly five years. We have updated the 802.16 WiMAX radios to be compliant with the communications regulations in most countries throughout the world. In addition, significant work has been undertaken to test the GateSync technologies in different settings to assure performance and regulatory objectives can be met – most of which has been done in conjunction with airlines and airframer community,” says Thompson.
The aircraft transceiver is certainly a box full of tricks. It contains an 802.11 radio, a GSM (3G) radio and two WiMAX radios operating at 3.5GHz or 5.8GHz. It also contains an upgradeable 80GB solid-state hard drive for store and forward options. In addition it packs a GPS receiver so it knows its current location and uses world time synchronisation software to allow a file transfer to stop before being completed and concatenate when the aircraft regains connection at the next hub.
Airlines have always enjoyed a degree of special treatment from Hollywood studios regarding their content. Despite this, they have remained largely wary of wireless distribution of their ‘early window’ content. Existing solutions typically use data encrypted on media. Lumexis’ solution is a typical example. “The content is encrypted on the cartridge so the Hollywood studios are not concerned about the data being pirated – as they are with wireless,” says Salter.
However, Thompson believes Hollywood opinions are starting to change. “One studio CEO I spoke to welcomes an encrypted wireless solution because it will stop USB sticks and hard drives of their content going missing.” And Trent adds, “When the encryption has been proven, I believe the studios are waiting to embrace this kind of solution. In fact, the GateSync encryption methods are as effective, if not more so, than traditional storage based methods.”
As the hardware is currently undergoing DO-160 qualification, Thales insists the only thing standing in the way of an airline running with the system now would be getting an FAA project number.
Beyond the obvious applications of wireless data loading, Thales’ Thompson believes being able to think about data loading differently can provide other benefits. “We’ve heard from customers that need to add and remove content from their IFE playlist, across 250 airplanes, within 24 hours. To date, they manage to do it all manually, but at the cost of a lot of time and money. With GateSync and our IFE solution, the whole fleet could be taken care of wirelessly, within an hour.”
However good a solution may seem in principal, technological merits and benefits offer no guarantee of success. “Potential issues are availability at airports, the number of aircraft equipped with the required hardware, and cost. The first two will determine the potential take up, whereas the third will influence how the system is used; whether for all updates or just smaller, regular updates such as news,” says Robert Smith, senior market analyst with IMDC.
Indeed, history is littered with great products and innovations that failed due to nothing more than simple economics and the aviation industry only need look as far as Concorde for proof. Smith also notes that, “Airlines operating in regions where labour is relatively cheap might find it hard to justify automated content loading. For example, if they have an engineer regularly boarding the aircraft for any other reason, the marginal cost of ‘sneakernet’ data loading is minimal.”
Whether Thales and Proximetry see a domino effect of uptake once examples are flying remains to be seen. An Airbus A320 belonging to a European airline will be the first flying example in the third quarter of 2012, with a fleet of over 200 aircraft, of a currently undisclosed US airline, being line-fitted with the system for the third quarter of 2013. However, Thompson is keen to acknowledge the importance airline personnel will play if the system is to become a success for its customers, “An airline should consider adding an information and technology position to take advantage of the E-enabled aircraft. They’ll need to work with key maintenance and certification individuals to update the operations processes and procedures. Integrating with legacy airline software tools will be a challenge that should not be taken lightly.”
Whilst history records the demise of great products due to pure economics, the reverse is also true. Before the iPod and iTunes there was a glut of inexpensive MP3 players, yet none offered the seamless integrated experience that Apple’s more expensive but complete solution provided. If Thales and Proximetry get things right, the aviation industry might finally have a complete wireless solution to the ‘last mile’ data-loading conundrum that has evaded the industry for years.