The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is the most-anticipated wide-bodied jet of all-time and the latest example of convergence between the aviation industry and the tech world. Boeing has taken a total of 859 orders since 2004, and so far it has only delivered 14 planes. By end of 2013, it intends to ramp up production to 10 units per month, but even then, most customers still have a wait time of between five and 10 years.
But this isn't a story about the Dreamliner's composite body, or the fact that it uses 20 per cent less fuel than a 767, though: inside all 859 of those planes, each and every seat will be outfitted with an Android-powered entertainment system.
Boeing is offering two flavours of in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) solutions: the Thales TopSeries Avant, and the Panasonic eX3. Other than it being Android-based, we don't have any details on the eX3 — but, rather conveniently, two days ago, Qatar Airways showed off its recently-delivered 787 Dreamliner at the Farnborough International Airshow in the UK — and inside there are 254 seats, all equipped with the Thales IFEC.
There are two classes in the Qatar Airways 787, economy and business, and they're outfitted with 10in and 17in touchscreen IFECs respectively. The IFECs are completely integrated — all of the hardware is stored in the seat-back unit (there's no under-seat box). And the hardware spec... well, this is the bit that blew my mind.
Each IFEC has an STMicro dual-core ARM processor, 1GB of RAM, and a 256GB (!) SSD. There's also a main server, which features 32 x86 cores (so, quad-CPU Xeon or Opteron), 128GB of RAM, and a further 4TB of SSD storage. Optionally, the Avant can be equipped with what looks like a pull-out Android handset (a Touch Passenger Media Unit) — presumably for running Android apps that aren't suited to the large screen.
Software-wise, we don't know much beyond the fact that both the Thales and Panasonic units will run a customised version of Android. Given the time frame, we're probably talking about Android 2.3 or 3.0 — but looking at the photo (top), which looks nothing like Android except for the three buttons in the bottom right corner, Thales is probably just using Android because a) it's free, and b) it has a large software ecosystem that passengers can leverage.
All told, a Qatar Airways Dreamliner has 508 ARM cores, 32 x86 cores, 382GB of RAM, and 69 terabytes of solid-state storage. Apparently the planes will also be outfitted with Wi-Fi — no surprise there — and 3G GSM, presumably via a GSM microcell, which bounces phone calls and data off a satellite and back down to earth. You should be able to make normal telephone calls on your mobile phone, perhaps even without incurring additional fees — except during taxi, take off, and landing, of course. British Airways is also expected to use the Thales system in its Boeing 787s (and in its Airbus A380s) when they roll out next year.
Now, here's the crazy bit: according to VR-Zone, the TopSeries Avant is 80 per cent lighter than other IFEC solutions that use hard drives and under-seat boxes. Multiplied by 254, using back-of-the-napkin math, this results in a fuel economy improvement of 0.8 per cent — or, assuming two flights a day, a saving of 528 gallons of jet fuel. In a year, that's a saving of nearly £1 million — which is rather more than the cost of 69 terabytes of solid-state storage.
This is why, incidentally, airlines constantly refurbish their planes with lighter, more advanced furnishings — and why the 787, which is made from composite materials instead of aluminium, uses 20 per per cent less fuel than the similarly-sized Boeing 767.