Aircraft Chairs...

  ...a Quiet Revolution

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"Most Leaps in Cabin Technology are Incremental, but Every Once in a While, We're Taken Aback!"

Feature Article - SPECTRUM NETWORKS   JCF Magazine - JULY Issue
By: Rick W. Roseman

LiFi, A Complete

Game Changer

 

 

Game changing technologies are a funny thing. For every person in every generation there’s that first one that most impacted your life or captured your imagination.

 

For me, it was the latter. As a kid, I remember my dad telling me about the world’s first nuclear powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise. “It’s capable of circumnavigating the globe for 20 years without ever refueling” he announced across the dinner table. I was like, “calm it down dad. I’m not completely stupid!” But hang on…my dad had served on a conventional carrier during the Korean Conflict, and he was an engineer by trade. So upon some reflection, I accepted the veracity of his claim….sort of! But it was still incomprehensible, right!? How is that even possible, I thought!

 

So, I challenged him a little, asking for a few more details. Now here’s where he could have said “look son, I’m busy. Google it!” But it was 1975, so what he probably told me instead was…”Go look it up in the World Book” – those voluminous little troves of knowledge that were largely outdated the day they were published. But back in the day, they were the household gold standard for all of man’s accumulated knowledge.

 

Yet, had he or Carl Sagan, or Nostradamus, OR the twenty-year old version of Bill Gates for that matter - tried to predict that I would one day be able to have the answer to any question, on any subject, in any language delivered to me at the speed of light, by simply speaking into a device - I would absolutely have broken the ‘nonsense stick’ across their forehead.

 

But the reality is…some new technologies really are hard to comprehend on the early edges of their emergence. This is the story of one such technology and the company responsible for what is about to be a dramatic ‘game changer’ for aircraft cabins.

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Courtesy: Recaro Aircraft Seating

ACA's ground unit at work in a Gulfstream cabin

I was lucky enough to catch two of the principals of Seattle based Spectrum Networks for a Zoom call earlier this week, and man was it worth it! It was like being snuck in the back door on an MIT science fair and then getting a seat at the ‘smart guys’ table. I pretty much had to get them to repeat everything they said a couple of times – and with a little well-placed dumbing down, they let me walk away with enough laymen’s jargon to write this article on a little something called LiFi.

 

What is LiFi? It’s an emerging data transmission technology with a staggering leap in the ability to deliver content within aircraft cabins. How staggering? Well, It may not ultimately wind up next to the telephone or the internet on Google’s all-time historical ranking of technologies. But if you’ve ever had to explain to one of your customers why their new $80+ Million jet is having difficulty delivering concurrent uninterrupted 5G content to themselves and their guests – then this article is for you! It’s also a moment in the evolutionary history of IFE / CMS wireless technology that won’t soon be forgotten.

 

But before I go getting myself in trouble, let’s get the experts involved. As we jumped on our Zoom, I had the pleasure of meeting two exceedingly cool guys… Mr. Alex King, (Spectrum’s founder and CTO) and Mr. Jay McGrath, (the company’s CEO). Alex immediately described himself as “the techy” of the two and proceeded to give me a laymen’s definition of what LiFi is, how it came about and more specifically how their company, Spectrum Networks is dedicated to bringing the technology into aircraft cabins.

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“It’s literally leaps and bounds above current WiFi technology. LiFi truly and finally will enable the wireless cabin where Wi-Fi just hasn't been able to keep up for some years now.

I started with a question from the end user’s perspective.

 

“Let’s say for a minute I’ve just ordered a new BBJ and this is something that could potentially be installed on my airplane. What's it going to do for me and my family’s flight experience?

 

“Ok, so the main thing is the speed of Lifi.” Says Mr. McGrath “It’s literally leaps and bounds above current WiFi technology. LiFi truly and finally will enable the wireless cabin where Wi-Fi just hasn't been able to keep up for some years now. Current CMS / IFE systems are struggling to keep up with increasingly higher resolution devices and simultaneous users throughout the cabin.”

 

“We have customers that are saying, hey I'd like 4K uncompressed content going out to all of my displays with no latency. They want real time sources and wifi just can't support that - and so traditionally CMS/IFE providers use wired infrastructure, like fiber or copper to deliver the content to multiple devices around to the cabin. But now with the capabilities of LiFi we can support those things wirelessly to the point where that wired infrastructure can now literally go away. So, if you were my customer, yea, this is what I would say. You will never again experience degraded signals or crashes when your children are in the aft cabin gaming and your guests are up front trying to watch movies on multiple screens in 5K and Dolby Atmos. Oh and by the way, all that weight associated with cabling, wiring etc – just went away.”

 

Well, that’s pretty amazing and very compelling, “I confessed. “As a customer, that’s a game changer to be sure. But what exactly is LiFi…how does it work?”

 

This is where Alex took off in the tradition of any good ‘techy’. But he was kind to do it in terms I could understand.

 

“Ok, so obviously LiFi is fundamentally the same as WiFi, except we’re using laser-light to carry the data vs an RF signal. Light as a means of carrying data has been used for decades.  Fiber optic cables for example, have long since been used to transmit data at very high speeds. So, in aircraft interiors these days, almost all light sources are LED, right? Very efficient, no heat and very controllable in terms of light temperature etc. But while LED light is great for visible light – cabin illumination, aesthetics, mood etc., it didn’t really support the use case for transmitting data at super high speeds. LEDs can be modulated at 100MHz, which typically can only support speeds of perhaps a couple of hundred megabits per second. While Laser based light sources can be modulated at 10Ghz, which can support multi-Gbps speeds.”

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Laser based LiFi technology has almost no limits, and has recently been demonstrated at CES to deliver 100 Gigabits per second from a single source.

Ok, well hang on” I asked. “Just what kind of speeds are we talking about?

 

He smiled before answering.

 

“Laser based LiFi technology has almost no limits, and has recently been demonstrated at CES to deliver 100 Gigabits per second from a single source.”

 

“Seriously!? GIG’s?? That’s almost hard to believe.”

 

“Right? Well, it actually gets better” he says. Our LaserLight partner is projecting that in the coming years, it will be able to demonstrate a terabyte per second at CES.”  And although it may take a while for those speeds to make their way into aircraft.  “Our multi-Gbps solution is scalable, and additive since each light is an access point.  So, data throughput rates in large rooms can easily be in the 10s or even 100s of Gbps.” 

 

“That’s just insane” I said. “I feel like I’m talking to my dad again about nuclear powered aircraft carriers! Ok so the laser light carries the data, but from what source? Is there some kind of router in a traditional sense?”

 

And this is where the conversation really got interesting!

 

“No, he says. It comes from the lights”

 

“What lights? I asked. I guess I’m not getting it.”

 

“From the lights in the cabin” he says with a grin. “The downlights in the ceiling, lamps, ambient light. Literally any or all of these lights can be made to carry both the visible light we need in the cabin AND the data. Here let me show you” he says.

 

He held up a module - one of their demo testbed plugins for Gulfstream. He pointed it toward me and turned it on. It was a bright white light which he explained was a laser light fixture (not LED) and that it is controllable in all the same ways as LED, dimmable, programmable to any color temperature etc. But then he said, “Now I’m going to turn off the visible light and tell me what you see.”

 

When he did, the light indeed went out, but I could still see a slight purple hue from a diode in the center of the fixture.

 

“This” he said “is the data signal and the only reason you can see it is because we we’re communicating via cameras on Zoom. To the naked eye, it’s completely invisible. Therefore, it doesn’t matter whether or which cabin lights are on or off, the non-visible modulated signal is constantly transmitting data at super high speeds – and from literally dozens of sources throughout the cabin.”

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Courtesy: RRAD Design

It was a frankly a little bizarre to think about data transmitted in this way – but after eagerly devouring all I could read about the technology, I could easily get why LiFi was not only viable but on the cusp of changing IFE/CMS data distribution forever. But I still had a question.

 

“So, this all sounds truly amazing but what does this mean for existing aircraft and/or the way completion centers will now have to reconfigure their cabin lighting systems?”

 

This time Jay fielded the question – again with a bit of a grin.

 

“No actually, that’s the other good part” he explained. “None of the existing / current cabin light mounting provisions will change at all. The new LiFi fixtures are designed as drop-in replacements to the existing lights to minimize aircraft integration efforts and downtimes. This goes back to the thing about making sure MRO’s and completion centers are not completely reinventing their processes to accommodate a new technology. We’ve been careful to see that the transition is not only groundbreaking but painless for all involved parties.”

 

He continued by pointing out that because LiFi is distributed via light vs. an RF signal, there is also a built-in security component in that the data signal cannot go beyond the airframe. That is to say that unlike all the traditional WiFi networks we’re used to, Lifi will not create an RF signature beyond physical barriers.  It terminates at solid structures, thereby securely confining all data within the cabin.

 

It's hard not to be impressed with a technology like this - one with the potential to literally catapult data transmission into the proverbial stratosphere. I’ve long known that we were approaching a point where new devices coming online were outpacing the required bandwidth and speeds necessary to efficiently drive them. But it was exciting to sit and listen to these guys explain this truly exciting next generation of data speed and their clever methodology for distributing it within the cabin.

 

But it was here I wanted to know a little bit about how the company itself, Spectrum Networks, came together.

 

“So, Jay, how did this all got started?”

 

“I've worked with Alex for years” he starts, “as well as our other founders and colleagues. And I’ve always had tremendous respect for Alex. He's always been at the front of consumer tech trying to find a better way to do things in private aviation. He’s always maintained a strong passion about that. We also have a shared perspective on how not to try and sell in-flight entertainment and cabin technology right?”

 

“Cabin investments are very much a discretionary play. You have to make sure that whatever cool technology you're bringing, you're not impacting the aircraft’s downtime whatsoever. You have to apply the technology in ways that are not making it so complicated on the MRO's - and so there was always this kind of, let's say cultural alignment and passion that we always shared about not only finding new technologies but ensuring that they’re brought to the marketplace in a smart way. So, from a risk propensity standpoint, it took some time before I was all in. But as time went on, we eventually addressed these other considerations and once we closed our Series A, it was a no brainer for me at that point.”

 

“Our strategic partner in this is Kyocera SLD laser. They’ve been working in blue laser technology for years and have moved into LiFi because of the capabilities that laser light enables in that space. It has so much potential that the inventor of Lifi, Professor Harald Haas actually became a strategic advisor to Kyocera SLD. The co-founder of Kyocera SLD Laser is Shuji Nakamura and is actually the inventor of the blue LED - so he's had a long history in lighting technologies. His work revolutionized some of the technologies we have in our homes now and was actually awarded the Nobel prize for it. So, the people, entities and colleagues that support what we’re doing are quite impressive. Our company, Spectrum Networks is of course the entity that will bring the technology into aerospace.”

 

I next wanted to ask if LiFi would replace traditional WiFi or if the two technologies would coexist in some form or fashion.

 

“I think they'll completely continue to coexist” said King. I mean Lifi will take the heavy burden because the major data transmission can’t be handled with Wi-Fi any longer, without the interruptions and quality degradations we’ve all been nuisanced by. But I think there will always be a home for RF communications - and here's an example. Here in my office, all these devices are underneath the LiFi lights in the ceiling - so they can communicate bidirectionally, no problem. But if I put my phone in my pocket, well it's not getting any light in that case; so the RF signal would have to take over. So, RF signals will still play a role in certain distribution scenarios. But our fastest, and therefore desired, connectivity will always be LiFi.”

 

Thanks. So, gentlemen, is there anything else Spectrum Networks has on its radar at the moment?”

 

“Yes, actually there is a concurrent application we’re working on as well,” says King. “This one in the area of microbial contaminants in the cabin - obviously something the entire industry is attacking on the heels of COVID. So, the UV spectrum has a germicidal wavelength that’s very well known and has been used for decades in hospitals, water treatment facilities, food processing plants, etc.. In fact, maybe you’ve seen these big robots that run down the aisles in commercial aircraft sanitizing when the cabin is not occupied? That of course is because the traditional germicidal wavelength is damaging to the skin and eyes and so that's the kind of differentiator we have with our technology. What we're utilizing in our design is the short wavelength called Far-UVC.  Scientists consider FAR-UVC the “Goldilocks Wavelength” because it just as efficient at killing viruses and pathogens - and stopping the spread of them, as the more industrial germicidal wavelength.  But the difference in ours is that its continuous utilization is perfectly safe within occupied cabins. It doesn't damage the skin or the eyes and so now you can actually have something that's on in the cabin sanitizing the area continuously throughout the flight cycle.”

 

“We can actively stop the spread of any kind of contagions real time. So, let’s say you and I are sitting next to each other on a plane. I'm sick and you're not. I cough releasing thousands of airborne pathogens. Utilizing continuous FAR UVC, the pathogens are neutralized before you ever have a chance to breathe them in.”

 

“Ok, so how does that happen exactly?”

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“Very much the same as the data transmission we’ve been talking about. Ok, so here’s maybe the best way to illustrate it. Let’s say you’re in a Gulfstream and above you, in the valance, both you and your seatmate have a readlight. In that light, similar to the data light plugins, we install an emitter that emits the Goldilocks Wavelength - FAR UVC. Now just like with the data, it doesn’t matter whether you or I have the read light on or not. The non-visible UVC is on and continuously decontaminating the area where we’re seated – our persons, the surrounding surfaces and everything else. And because this part of the spectrum resides where it does, it has no adverse effects on fabrics or softgoods.”

 

“That’s truly remarkable. But again, I want to ask a similar question as before. Do you expect this kind of cabin decontamination technology to take over or otherwise mitigate ionization-based products like ACA and others?”

 

“Absolutely not.” McGrath points out. “Bi-polar Ionization products are dealing with re-circulating cabin air and will always be viable in the fight against airborne pathogens. The way to think about these two technologies is how they can work in tandem - each providing a layer of protection for passengers in the cabin – be it private or commercial.”

 

“Well I have to say gentlemen, this has been quite a ride and I know it will be for our readers as well. I want to thank you both and would certainly hope we can make a return visit from time to time in keeping up with your advances. In closing however, I have one final question I’m sure is on everyone’s mind. How soon do you expect we can see this technology on live aircraft?”

 

“I would say you're going to see the FAR UVC installed in aircraft next quarter - Q3 of this year,” says McGrath. “And I think we’re going to see the LiFi’s first install possibly before the end of the year, or by first quarter next year”.

 

“Well, I wasn’t expecting that either! I reckon the only thing better than a new game-changing technology, is a new game-changing technology right around the corner.

 

Thank you, gentlemen.

 

In writing this piece it occurred to me that while innovation is constantly happening in our industry, most fall into one of two categories – commonplace advancements that nudge the dial forward in small steps. And then there’s the far more seldom ones that make huge leaps in a particular area, seemingly all at once. All innovation is significant of course because its contributory – however incremental, always advancing the flight experience. But there’s no arguing that game changers are particularly exciting. They’re fun to write about and fun to be a part of.

 

Like the 97,000 metric ton aircraft carrier running the globe for 20-years on a few sticks of uranium, they remind us of what is possible.

 

 

 

 

To learn more about Lifi and Spectrum Networks, visit: spectrumnetworksllc.com

SEE SPECTRUM'S VIDEOS BELOW

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Special Contributor: Mr. Thomas Chatfield - CEO:  Camber Aviation Management

“Let’s be honest, on the ground we have all become accustomed to high-speed in our offices, our homes and virtually anywhere in between, on our phones. This expectation comes to a grinding halt in today’s aircraft cabins. Unfortunately Wi-Fi simply cannot delivered these speeds and considering the cost and otherwise advanced technologies used in these aircraft - it's a little bewildering - and certainly frustrating for their owners.  Because we represent owners directly, our team is extremely excited at the possibilities and what LiFi can deliver in our next private jet completion.”

 

“And of course, Cabin hygiene has never been more important.  Private jets already offer reduced exposure to pathogens when compared to commercial airlines.  But installing a system that is constantly decontaminating the air and surfaces around each passenger in real time is incredible.  Such a proven  system will quickly become the “must-have” - not only for new-build cabins but equally for cabin refurbishments."

                                                                                                                Thomas Chatfield - Camber Aviation                                                                                                                     camberaviationmanagement.com

                                                                                                                                                                    

Learn more about LiFi applications: https://www.spectrumnetworksllc.com/applications

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