Luxury private jets designed to satisfy the expensive tastes of oil magnates and pop stars may seem a far cry from the aircraft cabins most of us encounter on boarding our flight to the Balearics.
But technology now being introduced to pamper the rich and famous could eventually have a major impact on commercial air travel.
The wireless and broadband communications technologies that will be introduced onto private and business jets within the next few years will transform in-flight entertainment systems, reduce aircraft weight – and therefore fuel consumption – and allow the health of aircraft to be monitored continuously, according to Andrew Muirhead, manager of innovation engineering at Lufthansa Technik.
The company, which provides maintenance, repair and overhaul services for the aviation industry, recently branched out into technology development. The result, which it is claiming as a world first, was the launch of its Networked Integrated Cabin Equipment (Nice) system for business and private jets.
Jointly developed with Cisco Systems and digital video and audio technology specialist Videon, Nice controls all cabin functions using a single network, and facilitates the use of entertainment systems such as DVD and MP3 players, and audio and video file servers.
‘A customer approached us about a year and a half ago with a specific requirement,’ said Muirhead. ‘It involved creating a cabin management system where the video and audio systems were completely digital and where all of the controls, from turning on the lights to ordering a drink, were performed on just one network.
‘We looked at what other people were doing and came to the conclusion that there was nothing that would fit the requirement, so we decided to develop it ourselves,’ said Muirhead.
The system uses an Ethernet network and a wireless local-area network (WLAN) to control all the cabin functions, provide internal and external communications and distribute the in-flight entertainment. The company is the first to be awarded safety certification for a wireless network on both private and commercial aircraft, which means that air passengers will be able to use portable electronic devices such as laptops and PDAs for the first time.
The development should also reduce maintenance costs and slash the amount of wiring needed within aircraft.
‘Cables mean weight and weight means fuel burn,’ said Muirhead. ‘So doing a lot of the functions wirelessly means we don’t have cables running all over the plane. By using wired Ethernet for those functions where we do need wires, we have the advantage that we can route many functions down one cable.
‘It’s a totally integrated environment – whether a passenger wants to order drinks, watch a movie, surf the web, adjust their chair or turn on the massage system, it is all there.’
The technology will allow large amounts of data to be transmitted from the aircraft, enabling passengers to communicate with the ground via digital telephone or the internet, and allowing ground crews continuous access to information on the health of the aircraft to speed up any necessary maintenance work on landing.
The network is protected by advanced security software to prevent anyone hacking into it, while the system is completely separate from the flight controls, meaning that even if terrorists did gain access they would be unable to take over the aircraft.
The system, which has already been fitted to a Boeing 737/800 business jet and has been in flight for three months, will be installed on business and private aircraft on a commercial scale from next year.
Aside from continuous aircraft health monitoring, where Lufthansa is using business jets as a breeding ground for the technology, the company has no immediate plans to develop the system for commercial airliners. But it is investigating its use in the recently introduced shuttle services, in which business jets such as 737s are used for commercial flights.
However, Muirhead has no doubt that the technology will ultimately find its way on to commercial jets as passengers begin to demand more from their airlines. In the same way that most of us hate having hundreds of remote controls scattered around the living room, aircraft passengers increasingly expect to control everything in their environment, from the entertainment systems to the lighting, from a single point, he said.
‘We are very much a technology-driven society. People have pretty high expectations of an aircraft because of what they are familiar with in their living rooms. It is all about keeping up with the times, people expecting more and more comfort and automation – and just becoming lazier I guess.’
Business and private jet passengers who pay a premium for their flights are particularly demanding. ‘Business jet owners who spend a lot on their aircraft always want the latest technology on board, and it is difficult to keep pace with that.’
To this end, Lufthansa Technik is working with Videon, a designer of semiconductors for devices such as DVD players and high definition televisions, to ensure it has access to the latest gadgets before they reach people’s homes. The company has also recently signed an agreement with Qinetiq to develop technologies for use in aircraft cabin interiors.
The two will investigate the use of lightweight materials and new lighting technologies, as well as fitting transducers to linings within aircraft to transform them into flat speakers by causing them to vibrate, producing sound. These flat speakers have already been fitted to the same Boeing 737/800 that is housing the Nice system and the team is now looking at how best to commercialise the system.
Also under consideration is the use of transducers in the aircraft lining to cancel out cabin noise, said Muirhead. Qinetiq recently announced the development of a lightweight device capable of halving the broadband noise passengers experience when turbulent air hits the fuselage.
The device, developed in collaboration with Ultra Electronics and Bombardier, is based on a spring capable of absorbing sound vibrations in the high frequency range, combined with an electronically-controlled coil which generates electrical currents to alter the characteristics of the spring, allowing it to also absorb low frequency sounds.
Lufthansa Technik and Qinetiq are also planning to develop security and surveillance systems including new camera technologies. ‘If you shine a bright light at a camera it blends out so you can’t see the image, so we are looking at cameras that don’t get disturbed by that,’ said Muirhead.
‘We want to integrate cameras into our system so that we can encode the analogue video from the camera into digital and put it out on the network.’
This would allow security staff to continuously monitor what is going on inside and outside the aircraft, he said.
The advantages of installing such cameras on commercial jets – such as alerting staff to passengers acting suspiciously before or after boarding a flight – are obvious.
Introducing wireless networks on to commercial aircraft to reduce the amount of cabling used could also be extremely beneficial, both economically and environmentally, by improving fuel efficiency.
The technologies being incubated on private jets over the next few years are likely to be taken up by commercial airlines eager to reduce costs, improve security and meet increasingly tough environmental legislation.
That could mean an end to those ‘no electronic device’ warnings we are all familiar with. But it is perhaps wise not to hold your breath waiting for the arrival in Economy of that private jet-style personal massage system.