Streamlined Data Loading at Alaska Air

By Charlotte Adams | July 1, 2003
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Data loading is an essential but time-consuming chore on today’s software-intensive aircraft. Every 28 days airlines need to update their navigation databases, for example, and every aircraft computer at one time or other has to have a new load.

The process used in most places is manually intensive and involves the use of easy-to-damage, easy-to-lose, 3.5-inch floppy disks supplied by avionics systems manufacturers. A technician loads the floppies one by one into a conventional ARINC 615-3 data loading device, which looks like a giant toaster. Finding the right floppies, inserting them into the data loader, accessing the disks and transferring the data in this manner for even relatively small navigation database updates can take 10 to 20 minutes, and someone has to baby-sit the process. Larger programs may require the use of seven to 10 disks.

Beyond Floppies

Alaska Airlines, with the help of Condor Engineering, streamlined data loading for its Boeing 737-200s, -400s, -700s and -900s. The carrier has been using the new system well over a year at maintenance operations in Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., Anchorage, Alaska, Oakland, Calif., Seattle and San Francisco. "Alaska wanted to load data more efficiently and even store it rather than messing around with floppy disks [on the airplane]," says Cathy Benoit, Alaska’s manager of avionics systems. "We were using a plain ARINC 615-3 data loader that required you to have floppy disks," she, recalls. "You had to keep putting them in and taking them out and manually track them."

Alaska and Condor reengineered the process from top to bottom, making it easier to execute and track software loads. Loading a nav database, for example, now takes around six rather than 20 minutes. And loading a display electronics unit (DEU) program takes about an hour and 40 minutes, compared with "well into two hours," Benoit says. Disks can’t be lost or damaged and tracking is automatic.

Alaska equipped line technicians with rugged Itronix laptops, using Condor’s CEI-DL data loader software and ARINC 429 PCMCIA interface cards. Data is loaded directly into the airplane computer from the laptop hard drive over the ARINC 429 bus card. Condor also designed a simple, efficient user interface. After logging into the program, a line technician is prompted to choose a tail number and then a software load description–for example, "FMC NAV" for flight management computer navigation database. The interface asks the tech to click "no," "yes" or "exit" about whether to proceed with the load. If "yes" is chosen, a status window appears, indicating that the load is being sent or has been completed. A "stop" button allows the process to be terminated at any time.

The airline configures the data loader software on the laptops ahead of time, explains Steve Benson, a Condor senior software engineer. The system administrator loads floppies from the avionics box manufacturer into a PC, organizing them into a directory structure, according to parameters such as software type (e.g., "FMS NAV") and aircraft tail number. The data then is transferred to an airline server, from which it is downloaded to laptops that have been logged onto the airline’s internal (wired) network. When a line technician completes a load, an entry is automatically made in the software’s load history log file, so that the system administrator can easily track all software transfers.

As of late May, Alaska had 10 laptops–planning to expand to 30 computers–and was using them to load new software on the airline’s Rockwell Collins HGS 4000 Head-up Guidance System. The airline also has used the laptop-based system to load the following avionics computers:

  • CMA-900 FMC (CMC Electronics),

  • DEU (Honeywell),

  • Airborne communications addressing and reporting system (Rockwell Collins),

  • FMC (Smiths Aerospace), and

  • Control display unit (CDU-Smiths).

Alaska uses a "single-session" version of the Windows-based Condor software, where each laptop loads one avionics computer at a time. However, the Condor software also supports multisession loading.

Collins uses the multisession software–installed on a PC with a Condor PCI-based ARINC 429 card–in its software and system development and integration lab. Flight software can be uploaded simultaneously to nine Boeing 747 EFIS/EICAS computers configured on a test pallet for software/hardware test and verification. With floppy disks, it required 15 to 20 minutes to load each computer. But with parallel data loading, the nine computers can be loaded in about 20 minutes. The lab also can load software for the B767-400 large-format display system (LFDS) to the 11 LFDS line replaceable units in about 20 minutes.

Alaska wants technicians to be able to order parts and access maintenance manuals and databases wirelessly, something the carrier already has begun in Portland, Ore. At press time, Alaska also was preparing to load the Itronix laptops with flight software wirelessly .

Boeing 777 AIMS-2 Data Loader

Boeing’s new integrated avionics system on the triple-seven family–the Airplane Information Management System-2 (AIMS-2)–will feature a new portable maintenance access terminal (PMAT), as well. The PMAT, which is installed on the airplane but is used on the ground, is one of only two maintenance terminals on the B777. The terminals allow mechanics to retrieve central maintenance computer (CMC) fault reports, monitor ground tests and perform data loading, explains John Martin, director of sales and marketing with Demo Systems, which provides PMATs for all B777s.

Boeing chose Demo Systems to develop and supply a new PMAT–known as PMAT/LD (large display)–for new AIMS-2-equipped B777s. The new unit features a 14.1-inch display, speedier processor, hard drive and a DVD/CD-ROM drive–items that were not standard on the earlier version. The PMAT/LD also provides both Ethernet and universal serial bus (USB) support. Its hard drive is preloaded with all the B777 "loadable software aircraft parts" used to load more than 80 avionics systems on the aircraft, including AIMS-2. The new PMAT/LD’s 20 gigabytes of mass storage is also large enough to store all of the B777’s maintenance manuals in electronic format, as provided by the Boeing portable maintenance aid (PMA).

The Moorpark, Calif., company also has developed a ground-based tool, the PMAT 2000, to enhance configuration control of B777 AIMS-2 software loads. The PMAT 2000 can receive LSAPs electronically over the Internet and transfer them to the hard drive of the PMAT/LD and the maintenance access terminal (MAT). The PMAT 2000 supports ARINC 615A Ethernet loading of the B777 electronic flight bag and also can be used on the 737, 757, 767 and 747-400.

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