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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Aircraft’s Place in the IoT Revolution

Aviation interests are warming to the Internet of Things and how the coming connectivity revolution will enhance the industry on multiple levels.

By Robert W. Moorman

In aviation circles, professionals prefer the conceptual term “connected network” to the consumer-products-sounding Internet of Things (IoT). While IoT may not adequately describe the technical and commercial potential of satellite-based data communications in all things aviation, the growth of connectivity in the industry needs no debate.

“15 years ago, less than 10 percent of the world’s aircraft had connectivity of any sort,” says TrueNorth Avionics Founder and CEO Mark van Berkel. “By 2030, 90 percent of all aircraft will have some sort of connectivity.” TrueNorth specializes in providing airborne connectivity to long-range business jets.

The origin of IoT dates back to 1982, when a modified soft drinks machine at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Penn. became the first Internet-connected appliance.

IoT — the concept of gathering, analyzing and transmitting data via satellite for analysis in real time — in aviation has extended to avionics, aircraft engines, airframes and other aspects of flight operations, including weather forecasting, over the last several years. Better aircraft data networks, connection points and increased bandwidth have significantly improved aircraft connectivity. Global high-speed satellite-based networks, such as Inmarsat’s GX Aviation, are making bandwidth, data storage and processing more accessible to the aviation industry. And with that improvement comes a desire expressed by various segments of the industry to be connected 24/7.


Consider the growing popularity of In-Flight Entertainment and Connectivity (IFEC) systems, which ushered in the IoT concept for many airlines. In a decade, IFEC has gone from being an onboard novelty to a must-have system for airlines to attract and maintain market share. Panasonic Avionics, a leader in this sector, expects growth in its IFEC and communications units to continue.

“The key enabler for the next generation of air travel is made possible by very cheap, high broadband communications to the aircraft,” David Bruner, vice president of global communications services at Panasonic says. “The long term application is to have everything on the aircraft connected.”

The air transportation business is moving into the “second generation” of connected capability, Bruner said. This chapter in the IoT story will cover advanced management of aircraft and all of its systems.

Known mainly as an IFEC systems provider, Panasonic’s communications systems are gaining traction. In Europe, where many aircraft operate in confined airspace, the VHF radios used for communications with Air Traffic Control (ATC) are saturated with non-essential voice communications. Panasonic is collaborating with SES, a leading satellite operator, on offloading operational traffic communications to make room for essential ATC voice communications.

Panasonic has outfitted 1,100 aircraft with in-flight communications systems, and currently has a backlog of orders for another 2,000. The company expects to install these systems on 600 Boeing and 1,000 Airbus aircraft at the two air framers’ facilities in 2016 and 2017, respectively. The goal: to outfit between 10,000 and 12,000 commercial airliners with Panasonic communications devices over the next decade.

Panasonic’s strength in the IFEC arena continues, however. From April 2015 to March 2016, Panasonic delivered 1,200 IFEC systems to airlines worldwide.

To keep up with growing demand for connectivity, Panasonic announced several satellite capacity deals in the last year. By the end of 2016, Panasonic will be funneling its systems through second-generation High Throughput Satellite (HTS) systems, which provide six to 10 times the capacity of the current network. In February 2016, SES and Panasonic signed two, multi-year satellite capacity agreements serving aeronautical, maritime and oil and gas markets across the Americas.

Panasonic also provides four-dimensional weather forecasting to commercial airliners through connectivity as well as an aircraft tracking service, a byproduct of having its GPS-linked IFEC systems onboard.

Panasonic isn’t alone, Honeywell Aerospace is also connected in a big way, gathering, sending and analyzing data on engines, Auxiliary Power Units (APUs), brakes and avionics, all of which it produces. “This is new technology that we’re flying on our [Boeing] 757 test aircraft,” Carl Esposito, vice president of marketing and product management at Honeywell Aerospace, tells Avionics Magazine.

Esposito said tests on connectivity software would continue through 2016, with FAA certification expected by year’s end and available for sale sometime in 2017.

The multi-part company is also developing connected radar by updating its IntuVue RDR4000 3D weather radar. In 2015, Honeywell launched the Weather Information Service (WIS) mobile app, which it claims can save airlines as much as $65,000 per aircraft per year. Turbulence costs airlines around $100 million per year.

Aviaso, now a Honeywell company, offers IoT software that gathers aircraft usage data and identifies ways airlines can save fuel through an intuitive software interface. Aviaso services can reduce fuel costs from 3 to 5 percent per flight, saving airlines tens of millions of dollars annually, Esposito said.

Honeywell’s Flight Management System (FMS) datalink service provides pilots with updated wind and temperature information to improve fuel performance, which, Honeywell projects, will save airlines $75,000 to $100,000 per year per aircraft, depending upon average flight length and the version of its FMS installed. Virgin Atlantic will be the first airline to install Honeywell’s FMS datalink service.

Honeywell is partnering with Bombardier on connectivity technologies, and in late March, Transport Canada awarded Bombardier Business Aircraft’s Wireless Access Virtually Everywhere (WAVE) high-speed in-flight connectivity solution a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC).

Using Honeywell’s JetWave hardware, WAVE allows business aviation passengers to browse the Internet and conduct videoconferencing in-flight anywhere worldwide. JetWave satellite communications hardware stays connected to Inmarsat’s Jet ConneX satellite solution at various altitudes, angles and speeds, in any kind of weather. The system is offered as an option to customers of new Global 5000 and Global 6000 aircraft; it is also offered as an upgrade for existing Global aircraft currently in service.

Separately, Bombardier’s Smart Link service, which rolled out in late 2015, provides performance and operations monitoring as well as reporting services for Learjet, Challenger and Global aircraft. Through a direct link to Bombardier’s Customer Response data center, SmartLink enables support teams to monitor operator and fleet performance, alert maintenance personnel of failures and transform notifications into real-time service plans, which is the long-term goal of all aircraft and engine OEMs and their customers.

Mike Blackman, manager of Aircraft Health Management Systems (AHMS) for Bombardier Business Aircraft says the goal with Smart Link is to go from a “reactive to proactive environment. It isn’t just about maintenance. It is about the operation of the various departments” and linking all the systems together.

Powerplant Prominence

Engine manufacturers have led the way in IoT related advances on aircraft hardware. Predictive maintenance solutions for engines have been around for some time, but the latest engine monitoring systems are superior, in part, because of better aircraft connectivity. In the past, engineers analyzed the basics, such as exhaust gas, temperature and core vibration. Now, there is continuous operational performance data coming from the engine during all phases of flight as well as configuration data, which examines the number of cycles of the engine.

To help advance the science of predictive analytics, GE Aviation launched a digital division in March, which combines the company’s digital expertise into one unit. In addition, GE is modifying its Predix cloud platform for the industrial Internet to apply to predictive analytics for aircraft engines.

“In a nutshell, it is about three things: gathering more data with better triangulation through a better platform, which is our Predix, and being able to predict things through a combination of physics and data science,” Vijayant Singh, executive director of fleet support at GE Aviation says. “We have never had this before.”

The big evolution, with the help of connectivity, is the change from obtaining a snapshot of data to providing a continuous data stream. “Our involvement now is to analyze a much higher volume and velocity of data, whereas before engine analysts only had insights into a few snapshots per flight,” says Andy Rector, flight analytics platform leader for GE Aviation Digital.

The fidelity of the data continues to improve, at rates of 128 snapshots a second versus one. “We are tied into 60 member systems across the aircraft with very detailed information about how things are operating and how one system sees another system,” Mark Thomson, product manger for GE Aviation’s Onboard Maintenance System (OMS) and AHMS says.

GE predictive analytics extends beyond analyzing engine data. This predictive analytics capability is also involved with advanced operational management of the aircraft, as a complex system within the connected network. GE is supplying the data concentration and network, the advanced power management and health management systems for the Gulfstream G500/G600 business jets, which are powered by Pratt & Whitney PurePower PW814GA and PW9815GA engines. GE also provides maintenance and health management data on the G650 powered by Rolls-Royce BR725 engines.

Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce are both developing innovative connected technologies to track the performance of their respective engines in real time, but declined to be interviewed for this article.

Pratt did provide this statement to Avionics: “With more than 450 commercial engines customers flying 10,500 engines, we have been collecting and analyzing vast amounts of data from our engines for decades,” says Lynn Fraga, analytics manager of Pratt & Whitney Engine Services. “This data allows us to optimize engine performance by identifying trends to reduce unplanned engine removals and improving visibility into the overall health of the fleet.”

“Predictive analytics is a significant driver of innovation in the future. We are investing in data analytics to accurately and proactively monitor the health of the engines to predict future maintenance visits, customize maintenance work scopes, and improve visibility in the overall health of an operator’s fleet,” Fraga adds.

Savings & Efficiency

Technology for technology’s sake is not a mantra of airline management. The airline must make the business case in order to embrace IoT-related technologies, meaning that being connected must yield efficiency and cost savings, particularly in the lowering of Direct Operating Costs (DOCs). Enhancing aircraft and operational safety also is an important byproduct of being connected.

“In the airline industry, everything, including achieving operational efficiency has to have a business case,” Joel Otto, Rockwell Collins vice president of strategy development and technology for Information Management Services (IMS), formerly ARINC, says. He notes that being part of a connected network could provide immediate benefits. Airlines globally lose an average of $40 billion annually due to disruption of flight schedules, according to Otto.

Operationally, there is a growing list of disciplines connected to aviation that will need satellite-fed data. Among them are: governments, ATC, OEMs, airline back offices, dispatch and maintenance departments.

“Interactions between the ground systems and aircraft systems will become more rich and robust in the exchange of information,” Otto said. “As this happens, it will require a whole level of safety, security, resilience and integrity to make sure it works the way you want it to.”

Next generation Aircraft Data Networks (AFDX) should also be able to support the needs of aviation-connected entities. “However, new networking services might have to be incorporated into AFDX aircraft to make end-to-end connected systems,” Otto says.

Rockwell Collins’ ARINC MultiLink flight tracking service gathers data previously unavailable for flight tracking into one streaming data feed for airlines. ARINC MultiLink merges the Future Air Navigation System (FANS), Automatic Dependent Surveillance - Broadcast (B), Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Contract (ADS-C), Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), Aircraft Situation Display to Industry (ASDI), Satellite Communications (Satcom) and High Frequency Data Link (HFDL).

Rockwell Collins’ Programmable Audio Video Entertainment System (PAVES), which launched in the late 1990s, is in the process of becoming a full-fledged connected system, Otto says.

With the ability to gather and transmit multiple sources of data in real-time, savings to airlines and other segments of air transportation are noticeable. “One could save a lot of money, between 1 percent and possibly 4 percent in direct operating costs per flight,” Chip Downing, senior director of aerospace and defense for Wind River, part of Intel’s Internet-of-Things Group (IOTG), tells Avionics Magazine.

Wind River provides embedded software for intelligent connected systems. The company’s Helix portfolio of software and technology helps connect data and devices through gateways, across the network, and up into the cloud.

The conundrum, said Downing, is that there isn’t a single owner that controls the system of systems. Airlines own the aircraft and related MRO facilities. Communications go through radios, ACARS data link or commercial broadband services controlled by another entity. And flight operations are managed by government agencies, such as the FAA and Eurocontrol.

“This multi-owner, multi-tenant environment makes it particularly challenging to implement system-of-system efficiencies and to exploit data in the emerging concept of IoT,” Downing said.

The next stage in connectivity also will include finding ways to make the process of capturing, securely transporting and analyzing data easier, he adds.

Being connected provides significant safety and maintenance related benefits to aircraft manufacturers. Airbus is installing around 6,000 sensors on the wings of the A350. The sensors, which transmit data via satellite in real time, are a good way to monitor stress and other anomalies on the aircraft’s composite-filled wings. With composites, an added challenge is detecting damage one can’t see.

Airbus’ next-generation A380neo, which will have new engines and better wings, could have 10,000 sensors on the wings.

The ultimate goal of the IoT concept could be the advanced management of unmanned passenger aircraft, writes James Hardie, who is responsible for ARINCDirect services in Europe, Middle East and Africa. But that idea will likely run into a wall of professional pilots opposed to being removed from the cockpit. Nevertheless, the desire and need for greater connectivity in the air and on the ground will continue to grow.

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