Just this week Red Touch Media (RTM) announced its partnership with Heads Up Technologies (HUT). RTM’s content distribution technology will now bring premium digital content to the skies in private aircraft using Heads Up Technologies’ cabin management system. Mike Santiago is attending the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) show in Las Vegas this week and was able to score an interview with HUT CEO Robert Harshaw. Together they discussed everything from the history of HUT to the technological advancements we can expect to see in the near future.
Give us a brief summary of how Heads Up started providing technology in the aircraft industry?
In the mid 1980’s, there were a number of major airline accidents attributed to flight crews failing to perform routine checklists. Upon learning this, we did a little research and found that failure to perform the cockpit checklist was a contributing factor in nearly 60% of all accidents! As a result, we started Heads Up to create a computer system that would manage and read the checklist aloud to the flight thereby enhancing safety and efficiency. Shortly after, we patented the idea and have since sold thousands of systems to aircraft companies around the world. Since then, our product line has expanded to include cockpit and cabin electrical systems. We have now been in business for over 28 years.
One of the great HUT success stories is pioneering digital satellite weather maps for use in the cockpit. How did that change your business?
In 2001, we were a licensed provider of XM Satellite Radio for aircraft. While these radios perform like the ones in your car or home, they had to be specially designed to meet aircraft standards. We realized that it was possible to use some of XM’s unused bandwidth to transmit NEXRAD and weather data to airborne aircraft. Now, instead of relying on their onboard radar (which can only see about 50 miles in front of the aircraft) pilots can see the whole country at once. Needless to say, this gives pilots a huge strategic advantage. XMWX Satellite Weather is now standard on all aircraft built in the US. As weather is a leading cause of aircraft accidents, NASA recognized Heads Up in 2004 for its contribution to aviation safety. As a business, it helped solidify our reputation as a problem solver.
The Lumin® cabin management system is really a hub that controls the entire in-flight experience from lights, to air conditioning, to music and now content. What makes your content management system unique in the aviation world?
Our onboard media servers provide access to a variety of information and entertainment media to enhance the flight experience. Our Lumin® wireless media server enables passengers to use their personal smart phones or tablets to view their aircraft position on a map, access flight info such as speed and altitude, see remaining flight time, listen to the pilots talk with air traffic controllers, and listen to Sirius XM radio. By partnering with Red Touch Media, they will now be able to have studio films streamed to their personal devices or built-in displays while the aircraft is inflight.
How do you plan for upcoming advances in your platform of services?
The aircraft industry is highly regulated – there are mountains of regulations and requirements. We make use of cross-disciplinary teams and collaborative tools. It is essential to employ data-driven processes and practice continuous improvement. It is not uncommon for us to have product development schedules (GANT charts) that track over 1,000 individual steps. Not only do we have to plan product development, but we also have to plan for manufacturing and product support from the beginning. We are required by our aircraft OEM customers to support products we built 25 years ago! “Planning” is not only a matter of understanding the project and creating a plan, but also having the discipline to follow the plan – something we find results in big dividends.
How did your relationship with Cessna Aircraft Company start?
Most people think of Cessna as the company that made the little single engine propeller planes for over 80 years. While that is still true, Cessna is also a world leader in jet aircraft production, with over 6,500 jet aircraft delivered to date. Cessna was one of the first aircraft manufacturers to use our checklist computers in 1985. We grew into a major system provider by continuously solving their problems – first smaller ones, then larger ones. Now, they bring their problems to us. It is a great relationship and we really enjoy working with them.
In the technical world you live in, how do you manage expectations of your clients while still making sure you are on the cutting edge of development?
Our passenger’s expectations of our cabin systems are formed by their experiences in their luxury cars, home theaters, and with their consumer electronic devices. The problem is, once we determine that an automotive or consumer product is going to be a hit, we have a two-three year FAA development/certification process. This means that it is very important for Heads Up to get ahead of the curve by forming relationships with companies like Red Touch, Sirius XM, Osram, and others. Their insight into future trends helps us anticipate which development projects are going to be the most critical to our customers.
How will adding content at private aircraft passenger’s fingertips change their inflight experience?
I think our customers have grown accustomed to streaming media when and where they want. They do it at home, in their luxury automobiles, and on their personal electronic devices. It’s part of their everyday lives. Now for the first time, they can do it aboard their private jet aircraft.
Has it been difficult to add this capability to your existing technical infrastructure?
We have been working on this project for about 4 years and were very close to certification by the time we met Red Touch. Fortunately, we had included the hardware and software resources necessary to easily adapt RTM’s technology. RTM has been great to work with.
How do you see this product advancing into an even greater inflight experience in the future?
As with any product line, evolution is essential. There are two types of evolution. One is continuous, methodical improvements, while the other is more revolutionary. Heads Up plans to do both. We are incorporating passenger feedback to improve Lumin® today. And, we are working on the next generation of Lumin® for tomorrow. Our native fiber optic and wireless connectivity will ensure that we have plenty of bandwidth to support whatever new form of “infotainment” we develop.
What’s on the horizon for HUT as far as new technical advancement with Lumin® and other products?
As I have mentioned several times, “innovative solutions” is our brand promise. Rather than focusing on products, we focus on our customer’s needs. That way, we are able to deliver something they need and want. In the short term, I suspect you will see us work towards more integrated solutions that can be incorporated even more seamlessly into the aircraft interior as well as incorporating new connectivity solutions. Keep an eye on us! You can check us out on our website or on Facebook.
What technological advancements would you like to see in airplanes in the future? Let us know in the comments below!