Monday, June 1, 2015
EFBs: Finding the Sweet Spot
Electronic Flight Bags, now ubiquitous on the flight deck, range from low-cost, glorified e-readers to certified avionics systems. It’s a time of great innovation as users and providers seek the best way forward while making the most of what they have.
Electronic Flight Bags (EFBs) have gone from a luxury to a must-have in the cockpit. According to a study conducted by commercial aviation consulting agency AirInsight last year, more than 80 percent of 57 airlines surveyed have deployed EFBs, with satisfaction rates ranging from 86 to 94 percent.
Avionics Magazine conducted its own survey of about 250 readers employed in the commercial, corporate, military and general aviation sectors. More than 60 percent said they use or would use EFBs because the equipment will increase safety and situational awareness. More than one third of respondents cited easier routing, rerouting and time-saving qualities, while almost half pointed to the reduced aircraft weight that EFBs allow.
American Airlines, which got the nod to fly iPad-based, Class 1 EFBs in all phases of
|American Airlines replaces more than 35lbs of reference material and manuals that pilots often carried with EFBs. Photo: American Airlines.|
Driving the rapid expansion of the market are EFBs’ affordability and connectivity. Many airlines use portable devices such as iPads or Microsoft tablets as EFB displays. Jeppesen, an EFB software company that is now part of Boeing Digital Aviation, is “very bullish on tablets,” says Rick Ellerbrock, director of strategy for Jeppesen. “Tablets have become the cornerstone for most airline EFB programs.”
Market dynamics are fluid, however. Avionics Support Group (ASG), a Miami-based company known for its EFB tablet mounts, sees Class 3 as the ultimate destination for airlines. As a designated airworthiness representative, ASG vice president Hugo Fortes inspects EFB installations, and most inspections are for tablets. “That’s where the volume is. Everybody is trying to achieve fixed mounts on the airplanes” for basic iPads with Jeppesen charts, Fortes says. But tablets will be phased out in the long run, he predicts, as advanced Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast (ADS-B) applications become attractive.
Indeed, some large carriers are already moving away from tablets back to installed EFB equipment, says Jean-Marie Begis, director of EFB products for Esterline CMC Electronics in Montreal, a company that makes Class 2 and Class 3 EFBs. This may reflect logistics, maintainability and suitability issues with managing thousands of the devices in heavy operation, he says. “Some airlines may have figured out they need to have four or six tablets reliably updated in the airplane every day” in case they have issues with some of them, Begis notes.
Mobile devices unconnected to the avionics can display manuals and static charts and make preflight calculations. But these devices also are starting to tap into cabin broadband services in order to extend their utility (see sidebar). If an airline is willing to pay to connect tablets with the avionics systems — typically through a function known as an Aircraft Interface Device (AID) — the units can receive data from aircraft systems and access cockpit data links in flight. This enables applications such e-logbooks to downlink data while the aircraft is aloft.
EFB maker UTC Aerospace Systems (UTAS), is seeing a lot of interest in satcom connectivity, especially for automatic position reporting for flights over water, says Bill Baumgarten, business development manager at UTAS. Weather updates over water are another reason for a satellite connection. The very small data packages can be displayed on a map.
Once tablets are connected to the avionics, they also can display airplane position updates on charts during taxi to increase pilot situational awareness, taxi efficiency and runway safety, according to Ellerbrock. If customers are willing to spend more, they can add servers to back up tablet data, store applications, add new applications, and pass aircraft information to the tablets through an AID function. The servers also may offer certified partitioning operating systems than can run vanilla and flight-critical applications at the same time, offering a growth path to high-end EFBs. Servers are included in the latest offerings from Astronautics Corporation of America, UTC Aerospace, and Esterline CMC Electronics, and are planned at Thales.
The final step would be for an airline to swap its iPads or tablets for permanently installed, certified EFB hardware that would allow them to reap the advantages of now-evolving ADS-B applications. These so-called Class 3 systems, though pricey, are still a bargain, compared to the cost of upgrading the traditional flight displays.
But there’s still a lot to be said for Class 2 EFBs even in the ADS-B era, CMC’s Begis says. These systems can function as supplemental advisory awareness tools in the ADS-B information domain, he says. Begis anticipates traffic management and scenario-based, strategic flight-planning decision-making applications using ADS-B data. What-if flight planning applications are already being used in earlier configurations of the company’s EFB products, where processors embedded in the displays do the necessary calculations.
Glide Path to Avionics
The challenge for buyers is to find the sweet spot — what works best now but won’t limit growth. For this reason, in the tablet era, Class 2 and Class 3 EFB manufacturers are transforming themselves into one-stop-shops where airlines can gradually transition from document browsing to running flight-critical applications.
Astronautics stresses the flexibility of its new Nexis solution, composed of a display and electronics unit or server. According to company literature, Nexis can support everything from document and chart display to an en-route moving map with dynamic own-ship position, to advanced applications such as merging and spacing, in-trail procedures and a Cockpit Display of Traffic Information (CDTI) assisted visual separation. Customers can start with tablets and grow their way to embedded avionics multifunction displays. Astronautics’ Nexis is launching with Virgin America’s A320 fleet as a Class 3 EFB system and can be installed as a Class 2 system, as well.
These companies offer or plan to offer data connectivity between tablets and the avionics systems. UTC Aerospace’s newest suite of EFB products includes a Tablet Interface Module (TIM) and an aircraft interface device. A mobile device talks to the TIM over a wired USB connection or wirelessly via Bluetooth, with USB providing both data and power. Typically there is one TIM per pilot, and both of them connect to the AID, which ties them into the aircraft systems. Avionics data flows back to the tablets in either wired or wireless fashion. “[AID] provides isolation and protection between these mobile or untrusted devices and aircraft systems,” Baumgarten says.
CMC’s new 12.1-inch-diagonal PilotView EFB system with Aircraft Information Server (AIS) also interfaces to the avionics systems and accommodates the use of tablets via wired and wireless (Wi-Fi) links. The new EFB system has been adopted as a factory option for Bombardier’s new CSeries regional aviation platform.
Astronautics’ new Nexis server system also allows connection for consumer-grade electronics devices. Later this year the company plans to provide an interface device meeting airworthiness standards to connect portable devices either wirelessly or via wires. These tablets or portable devices would then be considered Class 2 EFBs, says Jason Shuler, manager of airborne servers and computing at Nexis.
All three manufacturers feature at least one solution that includes a server, allowing systems to store aviation data, serve applications and accommodate growth. Astronautics’ Nexis server is key to its new offering. The company has developed its own version of the Linux operating system with all artifacts, testing and design considerations specified in DO-178B for design assurance Level C, Shuler, explains. The system provides a partitioning mechanism that allows for uncertified (Type A and B) applications while ensuring the safe and guaranteed operation of navigation-type, flight-critical (Type C) applications, he says. The server also includes AID functionality.
UTC Aerospace Systems’ AID box is also a server with mass storage that can support multiple data loading applications, for example. CMC’s Aircraft Information Server will provide networking, communications and application support, Begis says, noting that it can manage high-speed data link and Ethernet connectivity in a secure manner.
TopWings’ basic hardware configuration includes two tablets and docking stations that also provide power. The company plans to add an AID function later in 2015 that will connect the pads to the avionics through the docking stations. Wi-Fi connectivity from the tablet to the AID box is planned for 2016. The company also plans to upgrade the AID with on-board server functions.
Thales identifies three categories of EFB software: e-documentation applications, which would include e-readers for aircraft manuals in PDF or XML formats; e-mission applications, such as e-logbook; and e-vision applications related to pilot situational awareness, such as live e-weather updates and airport moving maps.
Teledyne Controls, a long-time EFB player, now focuses on the associated aircraft/ground infrastructure. For the last six or seven years, it has produced a Wireless GroundLink box with the primary function of collecting flight data for Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) purposes, explains Murray Skelton, business development director for e-operations at Teledyne Controls.
In the last few years, Teledyne has upgraded the box to the GroundLink Comm+ configuration. A software upgrade also allows the GroundLink Comm+ to function as an AID, supporting devices such as EFBs. GroundLink Comm+ customers, who are also using the AID and EFB software, including TUIFly, Germanwings and Austrian Airways. Some 7,000 airplanes are currently flying with the FOQA boxes.
The GroundLink Comm+ is factory-installed with an interface to the 717 Flight Data Recorder (FDR) bus. If customers need the data at a faster rate or want ACARS or printer services connectivity, they would select 429 bus, flight deck printer and Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting Systems (ACARS) wiring kits, which would be installed as retrofits.