Hanwha is broadening its portfolio, with a bid to take a controlling stake in shipbuilder DSME likely to proceed.
Thales working on fourth-generation TopSeries
Leading IFE system provider Thales is planning the fourth generation of its successful TopSeries audio/video-on-demand product line.
TopSeries Generation 3 has been the subject of a recent string of large orders from major carriers, including British Airways, Japan Airlines, Korean Air and Saudi Arabian Airlines. “Though we’re not yet ready to release details or timing, we’re already looking at TopSeries Generation 4,” says Alan Pellegrini, general manager of the Irvine, California-based operation.
Thales applies the “Generation” tag to successive upgrades of the two core components of TopSeries – the displays and servers, both of which are dependent on continuing developments in consumer electronics. “Because the rate of advance is so great, we try to move to the next level of technology every two to three years,” says Pellegrini.
A Generation 3 server has about twice the capacity of its predecessor, according to Pellegrini, and has enough processor power to stream content to the seat twice as fast. “That gives the airline the opportunity to offer more content, and allows us to use one server to serve twice as many passengers – that has a lot of benefits in terms of redundancy and other things,” he says.
Generation 3 screens are characterised by higher processor speeds and greater graphics resolution thanks to the use of LCD display technology. “This has allowed us to incorporate 3D graphics into our latest moving-map system,” remarks Pellegrini.
TopSeries Generation 4 is expected to deliver further reductions in weight and power consumption and to crystallise around the work that Thales is doing with Airbus in order to be offerable on the A350. “We are pushing to minimise the amount of equipment at the seat, and to reduce the volume and footprint of the servers at the head-end,” says Pellegrini.
In the shorter term, new features of TopSeries could soon include the Dual View capability for premium-class installations. “Airlines are asking us provide a control panel right at the seat so that the passenger can not only control what’s appearing on his large screen but also simultaneously do something different on the smaller unit,” Pellegrini explains. “For example, he could watch a movie on the main screen and run the moving-map on the smaller unit.”
The moving-map itself will soon acquire the ability to display two types of image at once. “We’re working on embedding real-time images from the external camera in the flight-following graphics generated by the system,” says Pellegrini.
Prime competitor Panasonic took the headlines last week by announcing an autumn launch date for its eXconnect Ku-band satellite passenger connectivity service. Thales’ comparable offering is TopConnect, based primarily on integration of TopSeries with the group’s TopFlight Inmarsat L-band satcoms avionics and those of other vendors such as Honeywell and Rockwell Collins. In parallel, Thales is collaborating with service provider OnAir.
“Every system we offer can have connectivity integrated,” Pellegrini explains. “If an airline was looking to offer GSM mobile phone in the cabin and to have it integrated with our IFE, we would work with OnAir to make that happen. But if the carrier wanted a standalone GSM capability without any integration with the IFE, we’d say go talk to OnAir. A lot of the time it will make sense for us to collaborate with them to meet an airline’s connectivity needs, but it doesn’t always have to be the case.”
Thales aims to be as flexible as possible when it comes to connectivity. “We at Irvine are not in this to sell satcoms equipment – we’re in it to sell connectivity solutions, and that means having a broad portfolio approach,” he says. “Airlines have to consider a lot of factors, including the aircraft types they operate – not every type can host all the satcoms systems. Take the Boeing 787, for which TopSeries has been selected by several carriers. At present no Ku-band solution is offerable on the 787.”
Over the last decade Thales has advanced to the point of challenging top Panasonic for leadership of the top end of the IFE market. But now a new wave of contenders – including Lumexis, SkyGem and Sicma - are emerging to try their luck. Does Pellegrini see any threat to Thales’ new-found pre-eminence?
“I would never dismiss any company with bright ideas or interesting technology, but the barriers to entry to the full-service IFE market are enormous,” he cautions. “We spend tens of millions of dollars a year on advancing the technology, and I’m sure Panasonic does too. Being a serious IFE provider is not for the faint of heart or shallow of pocket. When the British Airways of this world come shopping, they want to deal with a corporation that has the money to stand behind the product and that’s going to be around to support them in ten years’ time.”
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