USB-A charging port on Virgin Atlantic

Four industry leaders predict the future of onboard power

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September’s annual APEX EXPO usually comes shortly after the latest round of consumer personal electronic device changes from Apple, making it a particularly useful time to check in with onboard power suppliers about their own view of what the future of keeping passengers’ devices charged looks like.

Runway Girl Network sat down with senior executives at Astronics, Burrana, IFPL and KID-Systeme for a wide-ranging series of discussions around the practicalities of the ongoing (if delayed) transition from USB-A to -C, how they see the future of power requirements, and what is being done to improve the reliability of the USB-C connector.

Formally, the new standard is USB Type-C, and refers to the oval connector that is smaller than the older, rectangular USB-A connector that most people refer to when they say, simply, “USB”.

“We’re seeing an increase in USB-C, and I think five years ago we all thought USB-C takeup would be a bit quicker than it has been,” Burrana CEO David Withers tells RGN. “It’s taken a little longer for consumer products to really demand it …. But we are now starting to see that really grasping the market.”

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For those — including some late-model Apple devices — still on the old rectangular Type-A, “USB-A has now moved from 2A to 3A in the latest round of Apple products. We’re now delivering 15W on USB-A, and our products have been re-engineered to accommodate that,” Withers notes.

What’s clear from talking to all these companies is that a long, relatively drawn-out process during the consumer electronics industry’s transition from USB-A to USB-C is expected.

Dennis Markert, director of business development at Astronics, tells RGN that “everybody’s talking about C. We love it, I love it: I don’t have to carry a power brick around with me any more. It’s just the right way to go.”

“We have rolled C out on our launch customer, El Al. They’re flying it today,” says Markert, although it’s too early to gain any practical feedback. “We ship 190,000 outlets a year. We don’t have 190,000 [USB-C] outlets installed to get that feedback. I think it’s going to be outstanding, much better than -A. You’ve got that positive lock, 180 degrees [insertion angle]. Passengers are rough, they can stick things in, but there’s less area to stick anything in. From a damage perspective I think we’re going to be in really good shape.”

The current industry trend is towards a combination USB-A plus -C outlet, for now, it seems.

“USB-A as we know it has been with us for a very long time, and it is a real legacy connector,” says IFPL’s Mark Reed, director of business development for North America. “It is going to be with us for some time to come. During this transition period, which we believe is going to be very long and drawn out, we’re adding USB-A and -C together in the same module.”

David Withers of Burrana concurs: “I don’t think there’s a demand just for -C, but increasingly it’s -A plus -C.”

Astronic’s Dennis Markert agrees that demand is high for the new connector in addition to the old. “More and more proposals are going out. What’s most popular is the combo. Airlines want to be able to accommodate the people who still have the [USB-A] product and the early adopters.”

Astronics power port for aircrafts to charge personal devices

Astronics is offering combo USB-A plus -C units, including for retrofit. Image: John Walton

Effectively doubling the number of outlets, however, means a demand for more power, as passengers take advantage of the opportunity to charge both a USB-A and a USB-C device: an older tablet plus a newer phone, perhaps.

One crucial question that remains will be around power draw. USB-C allows a substantially greater amount of power to be delivered to devices straight from the connector via standards like USB Power Delivery (USB PD).

This should in theory allow charging of larger devices like laptops, but this will depend on the laptop.

“As of today,” says Mark Friebel, director of sales at KID-Systeme, “the 15W USB outlet used for Type-C is even able to charge the MacBook Pro. All the backbone and the power converter, the harnesses inside the seat can stay the same. With Power Delivery, 60W per outlet unit, that will change. You’ll need a different cable, you’ll need bigger diameters.”

That MacBook Pro won’t charge quickly at 15W, but it will charge, Friebel says.

Your author is old enough to remember the problems of charging larger laptops with a greater power draw on older airline AC outlets, and it seems that this has not entirely been resolved.

For example, the latest 15-inch MacBook Pro requires 87W, while the 13” model takes 61W, and the latest MacBook Air 30W, all delivered by USB-C. In wattage terms, these are not notably greater from 2015 equivalents, which took 85W, 60W and 45W, respectively). Phones, by contrast, are at the moment largely below 20W.

A large multi type charger to charge devices on aircrafts

Providing AC plus USB-A and a second USB-A, like Virgin Atlantic’s new A350, allows airlines to upgrade one of the -A outlets into -C during the transition. Image: John Walton

None of the four industry players are yet talking about supplying more than 60W to larger laptops, even in business class.

“The current general feeling,” says Mark Reed from IFPL, is that “I believe ARINC were going to get on board and try to impose a power limit of 60W per outlet for our industry, although it’s capable of 100. We have limited power on aircraft. We can’t just throw another generator in.”

“The way we have it set up at present, you get 60W out of Type C if you’re using that exclusively. If you plug in Type A and demand 10W, this idles back down to 50W,” says Astronics’ Dennis Markert, noting that “the reason we chose 60 is that we didn’t see any product on the market that takes more than 60,” and that there are upstream supplier problems fitting more powerful systems into seats.”

Indeed, says KID’s Mark Freibel, “right now, our horizon is 60W PD per outlet unit, which means if you have four USB outlet units 60W is 240W in total.” This in turn requires heavier and larger wiring and power supply hardware.

In terms of the connector hardware, however, while the unidirectional USB-C resolves the problem of passengers breaking USB-A connectors by trying to jam them in the wrong way round, the internal tongue of the connector is not particularly robust.

“The C connectors, although they have good capacity, are small and they’re vulnerable in our industry, as is everything,” says IFPL’s Mark Reed. “We can’t make it indestructible, so we have made it easy and very economic to repair. The USB-C connectors in our devices are on a replaceable cassette in the same way that our audio jacks have been for years, so we don’t have to dismantle the whole seat or whole outlet away. We essentially undo a small jacking screw and that unit comes out. It’s a two-minute turnaround.”

Crucially, this will require either more frequent maintenance checks (unlikely) or an automated method (likely based on an Internet of Things-connected sensor) to flag repairs if an airline wants to keep passengers happy.

IFPL’s current plan for this, says Reed, “is like an intelligent jack that will monitor what’s happening to it. This is in development — it’s a question that we get. It can be reported in mid-air so when it lands there’s an engineer with a little red toolbox ready to go on.”

At the end of the day, for passengers on the plane and consumers off it, the transition between USB-A and USB-C is going to be the new normal.

USB and AC power ports on demonstration to be used in aircrafts

The power transition period is likely to be complex for passengers — and for airlines. Image: John Walton

Whatever happens after USB-C — whether that’s a future wired standard like a notional USB-D, USB-E or something similar, or a type of either contact or contactless wireless charging — the industry will need to transition to it.

Clearly, given the extensive regulations, certification requirements and need for testing around electro-magnetic interference (EMI) in the cabin, this will be as much, if not more, of a challenge than getting from USB-A to USB-C.

USB-A charging port on Virgin Atlantic

Even on Virgin Atlantic’s newest aircraft, it’s only USB-A still, suggesting we’re very early into the transition. Image: John Walton

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