Electronic flight bag (EFB) systems are now mature products that provide a wide range of benefits for commercial flight decks and business jet cockpits. However, sales of the systems are expected to be slower in the retrofit market due to the economic downturn.
EFBs have a classification scheme that defines three types of hardware and three classes of software. The hardware includes Class 1 (entirely portable laptop computer type systems) at one end of the scale and Class 3 (installed avionics systems) at the other end. In between is a hybrid type called Class 2, which can include both portable and installed equipment.
All three types of hardware can run software applications classified as Type A and B, but only Class 3 systems can run flight-critical Type C software. As hardware and software suppliers try to meet the need for portable and/or installed systems, and every sort of hybrid version in between, the lines have been blurring between what is a Class 2 and a Class 3 system.
It used to be, for example, that Airport Moving Map (AMM) software with "own ship" position of the aircraft marked using GPS could only be displayed on Class 3 EFBs. Now FAA is allowing that function to be certified for use on Class 2 EFBs.
The forward-fit of systems on new production aircraft at Boeing and Airbus, as well as on long-range business jets at Gulfstream, Dassault and Bombardier, is the area of the market likely to hold up best in the face of the global economic downturn, according to some avionics suppliers. The retrofit market is already seen as softening.
However, one uptick in retrofits is being prompted by FAA’s effort to subsidize the use of AMM software with own-ship position in trial installations of Class 2 EFBs on airliners. This is a rare occasion when FAA is granting money to airlines (majors, regionals and cargo) to spur the installation of avionics systems. The purpose is to gather data on the effectiveness of a relatively low-cost Class 2 EFB retrofit option in reducing runway incursions.
"Retrofit will be challenging in the next 12 to 18 months," said Loring MacKenzie, senior marketing manager for EFB programs at Esterline CMC Electronics in Montreal. Modification centers tell CMC that business is slowing down.
CMC has sold more than 2,000 of its Class 2 PilotView EFBs in both the retrofit and forward fit markets. About 90 percent of the PilotView systems go to business aviation customers and 10 percent to airlines, but recently CMC has made inroads on commercial flight decks.
CMC scored a significant win in the EFB market in March when Boeing selected the PilotView Class 2 EFB for forward fit and retrofit on the 737NG. A second provider was to be announced at a later date. The installation will be fully integrated with the aircraft rather than having airlines handle that issue on their own, said Robert Manelski, director of crew information services at Boeing Commercial Airplanes. In addition, Bombardier, Embraer and ATR have selected PilotView as the only EFB option for new-production regional airline jets and turboprops.
In the airline market, CMC reports plenty of requests for information on EFB installations but not that many firm requests for proposals.
For a retrofit project to go ahead in the current economy takes a very quick payback and someone at the airline to serve as a champion for the project.
It used to be that in meetings CMC held with an airline to discuss an EFB purchase, the room was filled with flight operations people who couldn’t relate to the benefits such a system might provide for ground operations.
"Now you see information technology people in the room who are fluent in how the ground ties into EFB systems," said Jean-Marie Begis, director of EFB product lines at CMC.
In the business aircraft market, Rockwell Collins has selected PilotView for forward fit on the Bombardier Global 5000 and Global Express XRS. It is also available on the Embraer Legacy and Lineage business jets and on Gulfstream and Dassault jets.
CMC introduced a 10.4-inch version of PilotView at the National Business Aviation Association convention last October to improve the display of charts and other graphics. The new unit is interchangeable with existing 8.4-inch displays. CMC has 23 supplemental type certificates providing for the retrofit of PilotView into various models of business jets and airliners.
Another prominent supplier of Class 2 EFB systems is navAero Inc., of Chicago. Ken Crowhurst, navAero executive vice president, said business was holding up well, with lots of requests for proposals.
The company currently is focused on the airline market and Crowhurst said small carriers with 50 to 100 aircraft are being more aggressive than major airlines. Regional airlines are also "coming on strong," he added.
The navAero t•BagC2 2 Class 2 EFB is being installed on Continental Airlines 757s and 767s, and Continental is the first operator to use Jeppesen’s AMM software with "own ship" position on a Class 2 system. Jeppesen secured FAA Technical Standard Order (TSO) authorization for AMM on Class 2 EFBs in March 2008.
Continental used the Jeppesen software on a navAero t•BagC2 2 EFB on a revenue service flight for the first time in late February this year.
While navAero is focused on Class 2 EFBs and had already delivered 1,000 of these systems, it was planning to introduce a new Class 3 product soon. The idea is to provide an upgrade path for owners of navAero Class 2 systems, something that Crowhurst says many customers are interested in pursuing. One reason is that customers expect FAA’s NextGen air-traffic control modernization program will use Class 3 EFB capability to display the location of other aircraft via Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B).
"The operators we are talking to see a roadmap they want to use and they don’t want to invest in a Class 2 system and then have to remove it when they are ready to use applications that run on a Class 3 system," Crowhurst said.
The navAero Class 3 functionality will be an upgrade option to current Class 2 technology by adding a certified Class 3 computing system that will be capable of running Type C software, Crowhurst said.
Class 2 EFBs use a single computer processor with a Microsoft Windows operating system. The processor being added to the navAero system will run the Linux operating system.
With three classes of hardware and three types of software defined by FAA, things can get complicated. The industry’s experience with selling and installing EFB systems has demonstrated that what FAA requires isn’t always crystal clear, even though two advisory circulars spell out the fundamentals for EFBs.
These circulars include AC 120-76A on certification and operational approval of EFBs, and AC 20-159, which provides guidance on how to obtain approval to use AMM software with "own ship" position (via GPS) on a Class 2 EFB.
Now FAA intends to clarify some of the policies involved, particularly those that apply to Class 2 EFBs. In addition, the agency plans to provide guidance on the use of lithium batteries as a backup power source.
However, FAA does not plan to modify or reissue AC 120-76A, said Bruce DeCleene, manager of FAA’s Avionics Systems branch.
"The intent is just to clarify what is going on already," DeCleene said. The final form of the document is probably going to be a policy memorandum issued in July or August, but FAA hadn’t decided at this writing.
One of the issues undergoing scrutiny was how Class 2 installations and approvals are being handled. Because this type of system is a hybrid — partly installed equipment and partly portable — there is the potential for confusion. FAA has no problem with a partly installed, partly portable system, but the parts are governed by different regulatory treatment that must be clearly understood.
Lithium batteries are used as a source of backup power in EFB systems. FAA wants to evaluate what hazard, if any, such batteries pose in the cockpit. DeCleene said lithium batteries have a high energy density "so there are some concerns regarding flammability risk" when they are recharging. The policy clarification will address how to manage the use of such batteries in EFBs.
The FAA update on EFBs should help airlines and other EFB users make the right choices about new system installations, said CMC’s MacKenzie.
One of the choices gaining in popularity is simply to include the purchase of a Class 3 EFB when buying a new aircraft from Boeing or Airbus.
Astronautics Corporation of America, based in Milwaukee, is the primary supplier to Boeing for Class 3 EFB displays (10.4 inch) with dual processors. The company’s EFBs are offered as an option on the 747, 767, 777, 737NG and new 747-8, and an upgraded version of the EFB will be standard equipment on the 787 Dreamliner, according to Bill Ruhl, Astronautics manager of business development.
The EFB on the 787 is tied into the aircraft’s local area network (LAN) computer systems to access "all sorts of information," Ruhl said. Most earlier models of aircraft don’t have that type of interface and many don’t even have a LAN, he said.
While Astronautics doesn’t make a portable Class 2 system, it does offer a less expensive version of its Class 3 EFB with a single processor using the Microsoft Windows operating system that is only capable of running Type A and B software.
There are a lot of possibilities for future software applications that could run on EFBs, Ruhl said. EFBs might one day display the location of turbulence near an aircraft based on reports coming in from other aircraft nearby. Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) functions may also be displayed to pilots so they can see digital messages being transmitted to the cockpit from air-traffic control on the ground. EFBs also may facilitate the implementation of ADS-B functions as part of NextGen.
Astronautics also is working with Aviation Communication & Surveillance Systems (ACSS), an L-3 Communications and Thales joint venture based in Phoenix, to develop an alerting application with an airport moving map to warn pilots of conflicts with other aircraft. Astronautics and ACSS are working with US Airways on this project.
Airline interest in Class 3 systems is increasing because many carriers realize FAA is much more comfortable having this type of equipment connect to an aircraft’s ARINC 429 databus than the sort of commercial-off-the-shelf computer found in Class 2 systems, according to Goodrich Corp., of Charlotte, N.C. The company sells both Class 2 and Class 3 systems for use by airlines and business jets.
But Goodrich Class 2 systems are certified under FAA Part 25 and "can easily be installed as a Class 2 or 3 system," said Jim Schmitz, director of aftermarket business development in the commercial transport sector.
Goodrich Class 2 systems are being installed in a different configuration known as a laptop docking station on several airlines. Lufthansa is the launch customer and plans to use a Goodrich laptop docking station EFB on its fleet of Airbus A320s, A330s and A340s and Boeing 737s, 747s and MD-11s.
The airline will assign each pilot a laptop so he or she can enter flight plans at the hotel the night before a flight by downloading information from a Lufthansa Web site. Once the laptop is placed in the docking station on the flight deck, the pilot will be ready to go, with flight plan data already loaded. About 220 aircraft will be equipped with EFBs.
Emirates plans to equip about 100 aircraft, including Airbus A330s and Boeing 777s. The docking station has a battery charger and provides ARINC 429 data bus interfaces that acquire the relevant data and send it to the laptop computer over a USB connection. The Dubai-based carrier plans to run electronic charts, documents and performance calculation software on the systems.
"Every three to four years you can swap out the laptop (for a new model) and retain the investment," said Schmitz. This means the laptop docking system is easily upgradeable as technology evolves.
Meanwhile, Goodrich is developing a new Class 3 system it calls "Smart Display." Several airlines are considering the system and the first STC should be completed in the third quarter, the company said.
A typical installation will include two Smart Displays and a system installation kit. Smart Display is a 10.4-inch LCD. Integrated in the same display unit is an Intel Core Duo processor and a wireless interface module. For enhanced system functionality, the Smart Display can be paired with an optional ARINC 828 AID, or Aircraft Interface Device, offered by Goodrich. The basic EFB 828 AID provides multiple interfaces including ARINC 429/717/834. An upgraded server option provides aircraft interfaces, and video surveillance and recording capability for up to eight cameras.
In Goodrich’s view, an EFB must provide more functionality than just electronic charts and a document viewer. The company sees EFBs as a "cockpit data management system" with constant air-ground communications and a host of available software applications, including the flexibility to handle future ones when NextGen is completed.
"We look at the EFB as a system and determine how it fits into airline operations," said Schmitz.
There is an "uptick in interest" for more affordable Class 3 EFBs — not the ones costing $200,000, according to Ken Hurley director of EFB business development at Teledyne Controls, El Segundo, Calif. Teledyne feels so strongly that affordable Class 3 systems will be the way forward for many airlines that it plans to exit the market for Class 2 systems.
Hurley said one of the issues driving Teledyne’s exit from Class 2 sales is the reliability of commercial off-the-shelf computers. In addition, the company has seen a growing interest in affordable Class 3 systems like the 10.4-inch display it makes, with two processor units and two display units fitted in most aircraft.
"Operators want to put something on the aircraft they know will last and function for the next 10-to-15 years," Hurley said, adding that Class 2 systems are simply not as durable.
Teledyne provides an EFB called the "onboard information terminal" to Airbus for the A330 and A340. The company also offers a full suite of EFB software, some of it developed for an EFB program with United Airlines that was canceled last year when United ran into financial difficulties.
The economic slowdown is making things a lot more difficult in the sale of EFBs. One big competitor for funding of EFB projects over the years has been winglets. Now that most airliners have winglets, the airlines have no money.
"It is a very discretionary purchase, and discretionary money is hard to come by in an airline (right now)," said Hurley.