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Boxing clever

The AirFi wifi IFE system has been in service for a couple of years but market growth is rapidly accelerating
 

Job Heimerikx, Chief Executive of AirFi, says his company has supplied equipment for 170 aircraft in less than two years but deliveries scheduled for 3Q and 4Q16 are ‘staggering’. Part of the reason for this is the problems encountered by competitors who are also trying to fit a wifi IFE system into a catering box but have run into EASA certification problems.

 

He says the Dutch company, which started out as MI Airline, is supported by the Mainport Innovation Fund, founded by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Schiphol Group, Delft University of Technology and Rabobank. As a result, there has always been an understanding of aviation safety requirements, which always come first. This, he says, ‘separates the men from the boys’, or from those who have approached the market with more commercially available technology.

 

The biggest differentiators between AirFi and its competitors are its use of aviation standard lithium batteries and having no need for a connection to the aircraft’s power system. For the batteries, this means a capability to run for 14 hours between charging (pretty much an entire flying day for most airlines) and an automatic shut down if the internal temperature exceeds 51ºC. Some rival systems use batteries similar to those in laptops and do not have the same endurance. However, they cannot be charged onboard – Heimerikx points out that there is always a temperature rise during the charging process, which makes it inherently unsafe. Batteries would have to be changed during aircraft turn around, imposing time and crew pressures. They can also be stretched by the power demands of the associated system. This is now a concern for EASA (see box story).

 

Connecting to the aircraft brings further complications. Firstly, there are immediate issues with electromagnetic interference (EMI), which has to be carefully checked. Then, a certified connector is required as well as an automatic shutdown if the power fluctuates. Finally, and most crucially, the installation has to be covered by a minor STC. As every aircraft type has to be subject to a separate STC, time for the approval process and costs all mount up.

 

Additionally, AirFi operates at 2.4GHz, which he says is the optimum frequency and also provides good cabin coverage. There is a 5GHz alternative but this can also raise EMI issues and has a much shorter range, making such systems applicable to only a segment of the cabin, say, business class.

Underlining the commitment to safety, AirFi has had the system tested by the Netherlands Aerospace Centre and ADSE, an EASA Part 21 design organisation. 

 

System

AirFi has two main components – the box and the platform. Up to three boxes can be fitted into a single catering tray, each weighing about 1.3kg and with a single power switch and simple status indicators. The boxes are then placed throughout the aircraft by the cabin crew, either in the ceiling compartment or in a crew-purpose overhead bin. 

 

The platform is auto-scaling, building the network through the cabin and load balancing between the zones to meet demand. As it is based on HTML5 and Javascript, with application programming interfaces (APIs), customer airlines can adapt content to meet their own needs, including flight, passenger and onboard sales data. It can run on servers of fixed wifi providers and be integrated with the company’s Connected Crew tablet solution. Updates are made on the ground during the charging process via the AirFi Proxy Box connected to the internet.

 

While it will stream video, quality is limited by bandwidth. There are also DRM considerations, as the studios do not allow their protected content to be streamed to a browser without an online connection. However, by using a preloaded tablet or BYOD pre-download solution in combination with the box, DRM content can be unlocked.

 

Customers

As for the services provided by the system, it is probably best to look at how a few of the airlines use it to meet passenger demands.

 

One of the early adopters was leisure operator Arkefly, part of the TUI Group and now called TUI Netherlands. After a successful trial run using AirFi to provide its TUI Cloud content, the decision was made to roll it out across the fleet, and this was completed in November last year. Although the fleet had various embedded and overhead IFE systems, AirFi gave passengers a free alternative to paid IFE options on Boeing 787s and a 767, while it replaced the overhead system on 737s, saving the airline money in the process. >>


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