Business & GA, Commercial, Military

Product Focus: Data Acquisition

By By Ed McKenna | November 1, 2013

Teledyne Controls manufactures a range
of data acquisition units covering the
commercial, regional, military and
business aircraft markets.

Like it has in many other industries, “big data” has taken hold in aviation. Boeing engineers report that on the 787 flight data can be collected from about 146,000 parameters; for operating efficiency experts this cache of data is a potential gold mine. It can be used by operators to boost fuel efficiency, maintenance and even scheduling, along with safety and many other applications. This surge in available data has helped spark greater use of an array of technologies designed to collect, analyze and extract value from the data for current operations and predict future hiccups in the system.

Systems that manage or monitor and analyze operating data for other than pure safety reasons are not new. Boeing rolled out its Airplane Health Management (AHM) system more than 10 years ago. GE Aviation’s Integrated Vehicle Health Management system (IVHM), now deployed on the Gulfstream G650, grew out the company’s helicopter HUMS program begun in the early 1990s and its “flight recording skill sets,” said Mark Thomson, the program manager for IVHM. In general, these systems collect data from systems already resident on the aircraft, such as central computers and databuses that link together the various systems.

One source of information on many aircraft is a data acquisition unit, such as Teledyne Controls’ Digital Flight Data Acquisition Unit (DFDAU), which offers a processor for mandatory data acquisition for safety and the aircraft condition monitoring system (ACMS), which can be programmed by operators to work on the operating data during all phases of flight, said Mark Collishaw, director, business development, Flight Data Analysis & Investigation Solutions at Teledyne Controls. It can “cause (that data) to be transmitted or recorded or be downloaded by data loader after flight.”

Over the years, there has been hesitance to use these systems for other than the mandatory data collection role, but that tendency is changing, said Collishaw.

In fact, over the past two years, there “has been accelerating interest in health monitoring technology,” said Rajit Jain, engineering manager for Boeing’s AHM product. From a single launch customer a decade ago, AHM now has 58 customers, and is on more than 2,000 airplanes.

Meanwhile, while the role of flight data analysis in supporting flight safety has remained significant for nearly two decades, “we have not seen any major or significant changes in that in the past few years,” said Bruno Cacciola, director, product strategy and marketing – Civil Products and managing director, CAE Flightscape. However, the company, which provides flight data analysis software and services, has been seeing more interest in finding ways to “improve the production of actionable safety information from that data.” To this end, CAE has “added broader airline operational relevance,” including maintenance and engineering, to its criteria for analyzing the data. It is also working with industry experts to merge key aircraft data with “other operational databases, such as route planning, dynamic flight plans and other data related to fuel, noise and drag reduction initiatives.”

A significant developer of training and simulator tools, CAE also has been able to use the data it has collected and analyzed to boost its integrated training offering or the Simulator Operations Quality Assurance (SOQA) program. For example, data from its user base has contributed to the greater “understanding of unstabilized approaches, (including) the key characteristics of those approaches and how to train better in that area,” said Cacciola.

In practical terms, the sales of next generation aircraft, such as the 787s, which have AHM designed into them, have spurred the increased use of the health maintenance systems. Boeing also uses the AHM on 777s, 747s, MD-10s and 11s and Boeing Business Jet as well; “we are (also) implementing a solution for 757s and 767s and 737NGs,” said Jain. Unlike the 777 and 787, which have central maintenance computers to collect data, the older aircraft rely on “the digital flight data units to do some of that data collection,” said Jain, noting that Boeing works a number of data acquisition system providers including Honeywell, Sagem and Teledyne. The latter has been signed up to be the sole provider of the digital flight unit for the Boeing 327 MAX, said William Cecil, director, business development, Airline eOperations at Teledyne.

Curtiss-Wright Controls
Avionics & Electronics’ CVR-E
Encrypted Cockpit Voice and
Flight Data Recorder can be
configured to encrypt up to
three intercom channels,
one high-quality area
microphone channel and one
flight data channel
(ARINC 573/717).

This transition is also being fueled by “big data,” which demands complex data management tools. “The 787s and the newer Airbus’ can generate terabytes of data per flight a far cry from the 125-some parameters that, even today, we still deal with on some of the older legacy aircraft types, said Cacciola. “Our concern is more to do with having the right amount of good data to work with.”

It is important to “whittle down” the mass of information and identify the relevant data to address specific issues, added Jain. “It would be really nice to be able to capture all those data all the time but it is not really economical.”

In addition to “big data,” the demand in the consumer market for “real-time information, (such as) real time tracking of information for our packages … (is now) translating into the aviation industry as well,” said Jain. To manage their operations, airlines need real time data about their aircraft to make sure they can achieve their tight turnaround schedules.

“The aircraft is becoming a node on a network,” said Thomson. There is “lots of the data being sent off via systems on the airplane, such as satcom … and ACARS, and … on the ground … the transfers occur either via Wi-Fi or GSM cellular technology.” However, the main barriers to it becoming that node are chiefly economics and security related. “The cost for bandwidth while in air is the biggest thing.” In terms of security, “a big concern … (keeping) somebody from getting a hold of an airplane and being able to do things with it that weren’t intended,” he said. “A lot of work is going into making sure that systems … have the right security tied around them and that the avionics are constructed such that the different domains don’t cross.”

Even as those critical efforts proceed, operators are using systems, such as IVHM, to address key flight issues, such as “intermittent concerns,” said Thomson. It could be an overlooked event — a flicker of a control light that the pilot doesn’t catch that is not an issue on that flight but can eventually, if it happens routinely and is finally seen by the pilot, take that aircraft out of service. Working with Gulfstream, “we found some intermittent issues and were able to tell customers what we were seeing,” Thomson said. “We were able to do this without being anywhere near the aircraft; that is like being a node on the network.”

The IVHM also has functioned in other ways providing proof to the operators “that the aircraft is actually working as designed,” and delivering to the OEM, Gulfstream, an overall view of entry into service of the aircraft. “With a brand-new airplane, there will be things that go wrong; you don’t know what they will be, but having this data picture helps you assess how big an issue you’ve got initially,” said Thomson.

The IVHM is up and flying on all Gulfstream G65Os that have been delivered since beginning of the year, he said. The system has been rebranded by Gulfstream as PlaneConnectHTM, and “we are working as a back office to Gulfstream … it is a relationship that works well with the business jet market,” where operators don’t have large fleets or huge engineering and maintenance staffs, said Thomson.

However, GE is looking beyond business jets and late last year set up Taleris, a joint venture with Accenture, which is specifically aimed at the commercial airline market. Taleris’ goal is making “an airline more efficient overall, so it really brings in the operational side,” said Thomson. “One of the more interesting services” Taleris provides is service recovery in which they take on the daunting question “How do you best reschedule an airline’s operations once you have had an issue or hiccup in the front end of your schedule?”

“We do have customers that from time to time report their improvements back to us,” said Jain. For example, “we had a customer report that they after 10 months use of (AHM) technology they (saw a) 64 percent improvement on delay minutes.” However, Boeing is also using the AHM data to help bolster its operator services infrastructure by collecting and contextualizing AHM information in the “aircraft maintenance manuals to provide operators, who (may have) just had a fault, key information, including identifying the fault and offering recommended actions … to resolve it.”

A larger goal for the AHM is identifying and predicting trends. “We have in our system 3.6 billion records now to analyze and draw upon to look for trends,” said Jain. The objective is to identify tends with data collected from airplanes and resolve them quicker. This covers not only operational but also quality issues; for example, the company was able to use real -time data to get out in front of a developing fleet-wide issue with cracking toilet seats, Jain said.

Currently, the company is mainly using real-time data to identify issues and fix them now. “The next stage is about developing prognostics to be able to predict when a component may fail, so the customers can take more proactive actions,” Jain said. They could either remove a particular part they know will fail, or “at least be able to plan it so that (the situation) doesn’t turn into unscheduled maintenance.”

This is critical goal of the industry generally now including GE and its Taleris venture.

Other key issues are in a way more fundamental, such as finding ways to collect and offload data in a more efficient manner. For data collection, Boeing is looking down the line at using Quick Access Recorder (QAR), “a function of data acquisition unit, to collect even more parameters … bus (still) one of the big challenges is getting that data off the airplane in an economical way,” said Jain. At the heart of this issue “is the balancing the need for real time information versus … getting information every two weeks or every week from the airplane,” said Jain. The company currently is using ACARS but is exploring the use of cellular and broadband.

In weighing options key statistics provide some clarity. For example, it is worthy to note that “ACARS can cost up to a $1,000 a month per aircraft; in contrast, cell technology using AT&T Wireless and Vodaphone in Europe can be as little $10 dollars per Gigabyte,” said Teledyne’s Cecil. Of course, ACARS is real time, while the cellular would be offloaded on ground, so it calls for determining what data must be sent real time.

There may be middle ground here for some operators. Low cost carrier RyanAir decided, for example, to eschew the high costs of ACARS altogether and do all of its offloading on the ground via Teledyne’s ground based wireless technology, said Collishaw. To date, “it has been a roaring success; now all of the data or 99 percent arrives within one day.” They have been able to address a number key 737NG related issues “and fashion a very successful safety regime.”

Flight Data Recorders

For now, the use of data monitoring systems on aircraft has not impacted directly the traditional safety systems, Flight Data Recorders (FDR), or procedures on commercial aircraft. However, the monitoring systems along with pressure from the flight safety organizations may boost changes to the way safety data is collected and transmitted.

“The use of flight data monitoring, primarily implemented as part of Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) initiatives, has not had a significant impact on the FDR itself,” said Tom Schmutz, vice president of Engineering for L-3 Aviation Products, a major supplier of FDRs. “However, in order to facilitate easier access to the recorded flight data, QARs have continued to evolve,” he said noting that these technologies “directly record the same flight data that is sent to the FDR, but provide more convenient access … via removable memory cards or wireless access.” In addition, L-3 is investigating “the integration of wireless download of the FDR itself in order to eliminate the need for a separate QAR device.”

In addition, the use of streaming and streaming data by aircraft monitoring systems for maintenance applications could make it easier to use that transmission mode in some cases for safety data, said Matt Bradley, vice president business development at FLYHT Aerospace Solutions. Calgary, Canada. The company’s Automated Flight Information Reporting System (AFIRS) is designed to among other functions provide real-time streaming via FLYHTStream of emergency data, including flight data recorder information, using Iridium satellite network to dedicated operations personnel.

In its final report last year on the Air France 447 crash, French accident investigation authority BEA recommended at least looking at triggered transmission of key flight safety data via satcom. The recommendation generated interest in AFIRS; however, at this point, industry is not pursuing this course of action, said Bradley. “It takes political will to really drive a solution like (that) … although it has been instrumental in getting our equipment onto other platforms and in developing interest in solutions in general.” AFIRS is currently deployed on about 400 civilian and military aircraft, but that number is expected to rise this year as it is deployed on Airbus 320s along with L-3 flight data recorders.

Along with focusing on “real time flight transmission off aircraft,” the BEA report generated “considerable discussion about the possible implementation of ‘deployable recorders’ … to avoid the time consuming process of identifying submerged recorder position and retrieval from deep ocean locations,” Schmutz said. “However, for now, deployable recorders and/or real time data transmission, from a regulatory perspective, still face considerable cost and logistical challenges.”

Avionics Magazine’s Product Focus is a monthly feature that examines some of the latest trends in different market segments of the avionics industry. It does not represent a comprehensive survey of all companies and products in these markets. Avionics Product Focus Editor Ed McKenna can be contacted at

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