SINGAPORE — Welcome to the end of the 30-day cycle for content updates. That is the message Panasonic Avionics is sending this week with the formal launch of the company’s Zero Touch platform at the APEX EXPO in Singapore. The solution upends the traditional content loading process. Individual movies, TV shows, games and other content selections are split out from the traditional bundled package into individual content files that can be easily assigned to an airline, a sub-fleet or even an individual aircraft. Want to add the new Peanuts movie to an aircraft scheduled for a trip to Orlando? Drag and drop to deploy the content, and monitor the transfer process from the operations center, not from a maintenance hangar or at the gate. This represents an opportunity for the industry to truly shift how and what passengers consume in flight.
The volume of data is huge, particularly for video loads. Pushing full updates over a satellite connection is not going to happen (at least not yet) but some of the data will be transmitted in real-time via cabin connectivity, depending on priority and size. A new Sport24 news short offering, for instance, will be updated four to six times a day, and can be loaded over Panasonic’s eXConnect Ku-band inflight connectivity solution for aircraft equipped with the system. On long-haul flights this translates to passengers seeing fresh video content updated during their journey, and not missing out on the latest sports news. As the per-byte cost of connectivity continues to drop and demand for updated content rises the volume of such transactions will almost certainly increase.
Panasonic’s Paul Kent, a product line manager working on the Zero Touch platform, suggests that the Zero Touch solution offers unique features, and creates a competitive advantage for the firm. The console and monitoring features, in particular, are compelling today (though the integrated console is not due until Phase 2 of the project in the third quarter of 2017) but the even bigger prize comes in the software updates. The only way to upgrade the IFE server software today is in person on the plane. Panasonic believes the time for change is nigh and will push the barriers to make Zero Touch happen. Says Kent:
It works for media. It works for content. It works for everything, even software. It is a challenge in the industry; a lot of people say it cannot be done. From a regulations standpoint there may be some challenges to overcome. But this is an innovation we’re willing to challenge the market with.
As the supporting infrastructure grows Panasonic sees the opportunity to provide a truly personalized content selection for every passenger. Travelers are already able to preview movies and create playlists from a library of available titles today based on integration available between Panasonic and Singapore Airlines. Similar efforts are underway with a number of other carriers. But David Bruner, VP Global Communications Services, envisions a scenario whereby the preview library is massive – representing essentially every film for which the airline has a license – not just the few loaded on board the aircraft. Says Bruner:
What you’re going to see is letting people preview what is going to be available on the flight or what could be available on the flight. Not what is, but what could be. If you select it and we have it, we can get it to the aircraft for you if it was not in the pre-defined set of content. That changes the experience completely and [whereas] several of airlines are interested in that I don’t think we have anybody committed.
Content options also open up significantly outside of the Hollywood arena. Whether it is Bollywood, Telenovelas from Latin America, independent filmmakers or even YouTube stars, content changes faster than ever. And customers expect that they will be able to keep up with the current episodes, even while traveling. During the 2012 World Cup, Emirates was able to load games for replay into the system thanks to human intervention at every out station and by touching every plane. Zero Touch will allow that to happen seamlessly over a mix of ground-based wifi networks, even allowing the last portion of the data to transfer over satellite if the ground turn time is not long enough to complete the transaction.
To move these massive volumes of data efficiently means building up a global network of data transfer stations that can touch the Zero Touch-equipped aircraft via wifi at the terminal or hangar. The cost of 4G (or indeed Ku) remains too high for any other means to work at this juncture. But the Panasonic Technical Services network is a starting point for that build-out and the company has its eye on expanding as executive director corporate sales & product management Cedric Rhoads explained, “We envision this global economies of scale network. We are in all these major airports so no matter which airline you are, no matter where your plane is when it hits our Zero Touch network, it’s moving content and that’s part of your standard fees. That’s when things really start to take off.”
From a maintenance perspective, removing manual content loading cycles is all about efficiency and automation. Eliminating the human touch allows for faster and more consistent deployments as the content is delivered on demand when the aircraft is ready for it, not just when a technician can physically arrive plane-side to make the change. And Panasonic is assuming all the liability and obligations for ensuring that the new data makes it on board, regardless of the transmission channel used. An airline or content service provider will not know how the data gets on the plane and it will not affect their operations other than to free up maintenance engineers to perform other, proactive tasks within the fleet.