Product Focus: Data Acquisition

By By Ed McKenna | July 1, 2011
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Changes to flight data safety systems typically come about slowly. They are the product of lengthy deliberations by regulatory and standards making bodies and industry. Even the data from the “black boxes” of Air France Flight 447 are not expected to spur any significant changes in the near future, according to experts.

However, under that placid surface, there is activity on a number of fronts as operators and regulators look at ways to use the growing wealth of data routinely acquired and stored on transport aircraft to boost safety and efficiency and meet new regulatory requirements.

The value of these safety systems and the data they acquire and store was underscored by “the amount of money and time spent to recover the recorders” of Air France Flight 447, which disappeared into South Atlantic on June 1, 2009, said Armen Nahapetian, vice president, aircraft data and information systems at Teledyne Controls, of El Segundo, Calif. Spearheaded by the BEA, the French accident investigation authority, the two-year search for the wreckage of the Airbus A330-200 and its flight recorder involved the use of a battery of advanced technology to conduct above and underwater search efforts in the South Atlantic. (The flight data recorders were recovered in May.)

As part of that effort, BEA created a multinational Flight Data Recovery Working Group. Composed of government and industry members, the group recommended, among other items, the regular transmission of basic aircraft parameters possibly using Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) and the “triggered transmission of flight data” via satellite in the case of an impending catastrophic event.

The latter sparked an immediate uptick in interest in the Automated Flight Information Reporting System (AFIRS) from AeroMechanical Services, said Matt Bradley, the Calgary, Canada-based company’s vice president of operations. AFIRS can be used with the company’s FLYHTStream system to provide real-time streaming of emergency data, such as position and equipment status reports and flight data recorder information via the Iridium network. It can be manually triggered by the flight crew or ground support personnel or automatically triggered based on a set of pre-defined parameters, according to the company.

Currently installed on about 220 aircraft worldwide, the AFIRS hardware is being used by about 25 to 30 different operators including military, commercial charter and international regional carriers, Bradley said. The company expects demand for the real-time data services to come initially from business jet community. Hawker Beechcraft already offers AFIRS on its Hawker 125 series business, and the technology has been flying on a trial basis on Netjets for the last year and a half, Bradley said.

Despite this interest, these types of systems are a long way from being mandated for use on aircraft, said Alexis Lossky, advanced acquisition technology and business opportunities director at Teledyne. Now, the recommendations from the working group are going through an ICAO review process, which will likely take years to complete, according to Lossky. There are several issues that need to be addressed including concerns about nuisance alarms and questions about satellite connectivity during dangerous events, he said. Then, there is the question of who would have to pay for the antennas and related support systems, which also would add weight to the aircraft.

Lossky, who attended the working group meetings, said however some steps were being taken noting that “Air France has started implementing, using equipment that is already onboard the aircraft, a very simple system to detect if an aircraft is below a certain altitude in cruise mode” and, in that case, “send position information instead of every 15 or 20 minutes, every minute.”

As the ICAO begins to explore the working group’s recommendations, the industry is implementing changes mandated last year by FAA in its “Revisions to the Cockpit Voice Recorder and Digital Flight Data Recorder Regulations.” This proposal, responding to National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendations, took almost a decade to work its way through the regulatory process despite being put on “the fast track” when proposed by FAA in 2002, said Thomas Schmutz, vice president of engineering with L-3 Communications‚ Aviation Recorders division in Sarasota, Fla.

Specifically, the rule included a mandate to record data link communications on newly installed equipment, make precautionary wiring changes and add a 10-minute independent power source for the cockpit voice recorder (CVR). It also provided new requirements regarding the CVR location and housing, while increasing the duration of digital flight data recorder (DFDR) recording and CVR recording and upping the sampling rates for certain DFDR parameters.

“We were and ready for this rule with recorders that would provide the appropriate duration of recording, and we also provided a recorder power solution,” said Schmutz. When compared with the scope of the BEA working group proposals, he added, “these are pretty subtle and minor things, yet they (still) took nine years” to implement.

Meanwhile, the last major change in this segment of the industry was the AEEC adoption of ARINC 767 for the Enhanced Airborne Flight Recorder (EAFR) about five years ago. Initially deployed on the Boeing 787, the GE Aviation-built EAFR combines any or all functions of a DFDR, CVR, data link and image recorders in a single line replaceable unit. It is connected to the 787’s Common Data Network, an Avionics Full Duplex Switched Ethernet (AFDX) network backbone, enabling connection of sensors and avionics units with the flight data recorders.

The EAFR gives operators a leg-up when adopting changes, such as those mandated by FAA, said Piet Ephraim, marketing manager at GE Aviation. Unlike an ARINC 717-compliant system, which is “a tightly integrated system” that relies on a standalone flight data acquisition unit (FDAU) to collect and send the data, the EAFR can be changed to meet new regulations without “any other impact on the aircraft” because FDAU is in the recorder itself. Ephraim expects this capability to become a larger asset as FAA presses industry to collect more and more safety data for the NTSB.

To date, however, the Boeing 787 is the only aircraft to have deployed the EAFR. Going forward, it is unlikely the system will be deployed on existing platforms. “It is really more suitable to new aircraft with network architecture,” said Ephraim. GE Aviation is supplying the flight recorder system for the new Chinese narrow body, the COMAC C919, he said. “It has a network architecture (and) an onboard maintenance system from GE which will make use of these wireless technologies.”

Regardless of the system used, the number of parameters recorded on board aircraft has grown into the thousands. With the new computer-centric systems, “it is a lot easier to go in and get the data, put it on a bus and feed it into the acquisition system,” said William Brankin, director, business development, L-3 Communications, Aviation Recorders division. As a result, the systems can record as many as 3,000 parameters in some aircraft. “In 1965 I think we were recording five,” said Brankin.

While the safety function remains paramount, the systems are increasingly being used to monitor maintenance and a growing number of aircraft operations. “The amount of monitoring that is being done has grown significantly,” and the amount of data recorded for maintenance has probably doubled during the past few years, said Nahapetian. “For day-to-day functions, this has become more important than the basic (safety) functions, but once an accident occurs that overshadows everything else.”

“We are looking at the maintenance community as a user of the information,” said Ephraim. “When you look at these network aircraft with huge amounts of data, it does give you the ability to keep track of the pulse of the aircraft and pretty much keep track of wherever it is in the world.”

That level of monitoring can boost safety and give the operator “the opportunity to monitor or manage health of aircraft,” Ephraim said.

“[Maintaining] airplane health is where operators are finding return on investment for the systems,” said Bradley. This means monitoring such parameters as engine trending and exceedences. For example, Caribbean regional carrier Liat was able to use the flight system data from AFIRS to reduce “the number of ITT over temps, over speeds and over torques of its Pratt & Whitney engines, and as a result its engines on wing time had gone up to 8,000 instead of 3,500 (cycles),” he said. This meant that the carrier could waive the routine hot engine inspection at 3,500 cycles and save $18 million in five years.

Access to this flight data also can allow operators “to manage scheduling of the aircraft, making sure that (they) are dispatched on time and get people to where they want to go on time, and possibly improve the way the air space is used,” Ephraim said.

“We make a data acquisition unit that monitors the hardness of landings,” said Schmutz. It is targeted at fractional ownership aircraft and configured to identify who is using the aircraft and when so costs can be reclaimed, he said.

Along with maintenance, the systems are being increasingly used to monitor fuel use.

The systems are also being used to monitor CO2 use. It is an issue that is picking up momentum and is becoming an especially pressing issue for airlines operating into Europe, which will begin imposing limits on carbon emissions next year, officials said.

Looking ahead, changes are expected to be completed to the EUROCAE ED-112 (Minimum Operational Performance Specification for Crash Protected Airborne Recorder Systems). The changes are likely to include a call for additional parameters for the flight recorder and provide additional definition of data link uses and look at deployable recorders.

Meanwhile, the question of the recording of images remains controversial, although attitudes have changed with Air France and other high-profile accidents, Ephraim said. One of the current recommended changes for ICAO 6.1, which deals with recording systems, does include image recording and that will work its way through regulation system and may come on the books sometime next year as a rule, Ephraim said. If it does, it will be “effective on planes produced after 2020,” he said.

“It seems like a long way off, but in this long cycle industry … it really means that to make those things happen you’ve got to start working on them (early),” he said. “Our EAFR already has provisions for image recording.”

Next month: Payloads

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 [email protected].


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AeroMechanical Services Ltd.

AgiLynx, Inc.


Alta Data Technologies

Ampex Data Systems

Avionica Inc.

Cubic Corp.

Curtiss-Wright Controls Inc.


GE Intelligent Platforms



IMS Company

L-3 Communications


Meggitt Avionics

Moritz Aerospace

North Atlantic Industries

North Flight Data Systems


Pickering Interfaces

Sagem Avionics Inc

Speel Praha


Teledyne Controls

Teletronics Technology Corp.


Universal Avionics Systems Corp

Universal Weather & Aviation

VTI Instruments

Zodiac Data Systems

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