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King Air victory for Venue

7th October 2008 - 01:00 GMT | by The Shephard News Team

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“This level of functionality is unprecedented in a light jet.” That’s what Andrew Mohr, Rockwell Collins cabin systems marketing director, said about the Venue cabin network at the EBACE show in Geneva six months ago. Now he’s at the NBAA event in Orlando to claim another laurel for the lightweight, high-definition-capable system – the first ever selection of a cabin network for a new-build turboprop.

The aircraft is Hawker Beechcraft’s just-announced King Air 350i, which is scheduled to show off its high-tech luxury cabin in the air for the first time later this month. What’s more, the turboprop is just one of four new positions for Venue - the system has also been selected for the Hawker Beechcraft 450XP and two types still to be announced. Completing the line-up is Cessna’s Citation CJ4 light jet, named last year as the launch application and due to be delivered from 2010 with Venue installed as standard.

The avionics giant’s flagship product for business aviation, Venue is designed as a home theatre for the bizjet cabin. Its hub is the Media Centre, a compact device bringing together a Blu-Ray DVD player, CD and MP3 players, an audio and video jukebox, Airshow 3D moving-map, games, and a USB port allowing passengers to load their own content on to the system. iPod and iPhone integration means that Apple’s iconic devices can also act as content sources. And everything is delivered to the seat via crystal-clear 1080p-standard HD screens.

All this and more will be available in the new King Air and the other types. “It’s remarkable how much they’re going to put into an aircraft like the King Air,” says Mohr. “The fit includes our new 15in HD display on a swing-out mounting, nine organic LED programmable switch panels, and a new functionality that we call audio-on-demand – the passenger can come on board with the music on a USB stick, plug it in and share it with everyone else in the cabin.”

The addition of audio-on-demand will require no new hardware. “All that’s needed is a software load to the control network,” Mohr says. “Venue is a living platform with a lot of open protocols that allow you to build in new applications very readily – we’re planning to introduce several more new capabilities in due course.”

Not that hardware innovations don’t have a part to play in Venue’s future - far from it. Rockwell Collins has announced here two significant equipment developments: a very advanced Blu-Ray player and a new range of HD screens.

“We’ve already got Blu-Ray capability in the Venue Media Centre,” explains Mohr. “But if the customer wants multiple Blu-Rays it doesn’t make a lot of sense to add more Media Centres, so we’re offering a new standalone player that provides extra capacity and much more besides.”

The player meets the BD-Live specification, which means it’s ready to plug into the aircraft’s air-to-ground broadband capability to give passengers Internet access to the interactive features and supplemental content inherent in the definitive form of Blu-Ray. “BD-Live brings WiFi and the Internet to the Blu-Ray world,” says Mohr. “The combination of BD-Live with air-to-ground broadband offerings like our eXchange means that passengers will be able to duplicate in the air the interactive home theatre experience they’re used to on the ground.”

From around the end of next year the aircraft manufacturers will be able to give their customers the option of viewing this cornucopia of content on a new selection of high-definition LCD 16:9-aspect-ratio widescreen displays ranging in size from 15in to 32in. Supplementing the original 10.6in unit, they will be compatible with the two HD standards – the consumer-market HDMI and the higher-resolution HD-SDI – as well as analogue inputs for applications still relying on standard-definition video. 

“The final sizes will depend on the availability of supplies of display-quality glass and the exact requirements of the aircraft manufacturers,” Mohr comments. “We’ll hold off until we know exactly what’s needed. But the 15in unit will be ready next April in time to debut in the King Air 350i, with the larger screens expected to be available by the autumn.”

Though Venue is cornering the limelight at the Rockwell Collins booth, the company has some success stories to tell about its other cabin products. These include the eXchange Ku-band satcoms system, a range of Inmarsat L-band satellite terminals, the Airshow 4000 moving-map and Tailwind satellite-delivered inflight television. 

The last attracted 36 orders in the 12 months to the end of September compared with 27 in the previous year. “No doubt about it, this market is alive and well,” comments Mohr. “However, we do expect to see in time a proportion of our Tailwind customers, the ones who are more interested in news than entertainment, switching to eXchange to satisfy their needs. If information is your priority, a broadband data service offers more flexibility and real-time capability.”

Mohr believes it will be a quite a while before significant numbers of aircraft operators are tempted to use eXchange to deliver IP television. “I don’t think it will be practical for a long time yet – cost of bandwidth is a major obstacle. Just as is happening in the consumer world, traditional broadcast television is going to be challenged by Internet delivery of alternative content. But we certainly don’t expect to see a steep decline in conventional TV.”

Installations of eXchange – known as BBML aboard the big Gulfstreams that make up most of the equipped fleet – now total 80. ARINC’s complementary SKYLink satellite service currently covers North America, the Caribbean and parts of South America, the Atlantic and Europe. Next region to be added, in the second quarter of next year, is the northern Pacific from Alaska to Japan.

Inmarsat plans to extend coverage of its latest SwiftBroadband 432kbit/sec service to the Pacific at about the same time. Rockwell Collins’ SAT-2100B and 6100B terminals, which combine SwiftBroadband for the cabin with a certificated safety services capability for the flight deck, was type-approved by the London-based satellite operator on the eve of the show. “We’re seeing serious levels of interest in SwiftBroadband from owners of very long-range aircraft,” Mohr comments.

The number of Airshow 4000 moving-map units in service has now topped 1,500. “We routinely introduce new features – this year they include some rich point-of-interest information, a new atlas map set and day/night animations,” says Mohr. “Airshow 4000 is a robust platform that still has plenty to offer in the way of potential for new content.”

Airshow 4000, Tailwind and the connectivity products are all up there with the best in the business. But without doubt the new jewel in the Rockwell Collins crown is Venue. “We set out to establish it at the lighter end of the business aircraft market - where the size, weight, power and cost challenges are the greatest - and we have succeeded,” says Mohr. “But it was always meant to span the whole market from VLJs to the ultra-long-range aircraft. We’re already aboard many of the bigger types with our other products, and now we plan to talk to those manufacturers about a transition to Venue.”

* The King Air 350i will be delivered with electrochromic window shades supplied by PPG Industries and Gentex Corporation. The companies say the aircraft will be the first in general and business aviation with electrically dimmable shades as standard and only the second type – the other is the Boeing 787 - to incorporate the PPG/Gentex technology. In Orlando the shades are being demonstrated in a full-size mock-up of the King Air 350i interior.

A dimmable panel between the inboard dust cover and outboard structural cabin window will allow passengers to control the amount of visible light passing through. They will be adjustable from a bright, clear state via several intermediate settings to nearly opaque.

The system comprises the electrically dimmable panel and a passenger control switch, and combines Gentex’s electrochromic technology with PPG’s aviation transparency expertise. Deliveries will begin next year and each King Air 350i will have 15 shades.

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