Advanced computing and communication systems aboard commercial airplanes are allowing airlines to operate and maintain their fleets more efficiently than ever before. Since increased efficiency saves money, cost-conscious airlines are embracing this trend, and equipment suppliers are striving to support them.
“The demand for in-flight connectivity, not only for passengers but also pilots and operators, is growing exponentially, and is re-shaping the way we work,” said Mike Edmonds, vice president of services marketing and product management at Honeywell Aerospace. “By 2016, there will be an estimated 10 billion mobile devices in the world, and demand for data traffic is expected to grow by a factor of 50 for smart phones and a factor of 62 for tablets. This rise in mobile connectivity isn’t just a consumer trend. We’re seeing the demand for in-flight connectivity reflected in what our customers are asking for, and what they’re expecting in next-generation products and software upgrades.”
Thanks to processors with increased speed and memory, and to new forms of high-speed communication, such as satellites and onboard wireless, new aircraft have more capacity to collect, store and disseminate their health status data than their predecessors. Problems aboard an aircraft in flight can be sent to maintainers on the ground in real time.
“That allows the maintainers to do things like preposition repair parts and assets and people on the ground to meet the airplane when it lands and get the situation remedied with a minimum of down time,” said Adam Evanschwartz, marketing director at Rockwell Collins’ Flight Information Solutions unit. “So that does certainly have a cost-saving impact.”
These advances are also helping address “no-fault-found events,” such as when maintainers cannot repeat a problem reported by a flight crew. Maintainers can now see “surrounding data,” such as the plane’s altitude and the outside temperature at the time the incident occurred in flight.
“They can get much more robust diagnostics and reduce the number of instances where maintainers will pull a box off an airplane only to find that there’s nothing wrong with it” and do not have to replace anything, Evanschwartz told Avionics Magazine.
The growth in in-flight broadband communication is also making it easier to update airplane software.
“With access to in-flight broadband, communication with ground personnel, crew and maintainers is simplified and we lay the foundation for worldwide update of software and database services,” Edmonds said. “We expect that keeping the software up to date on your connected aircraft will be very similar to keeping mobile applications up to date on today’s tablet devices; operators, maintainers and aircraft original equipment manufacturers will all see the benefits. Much like push notifications on our mobile devices, operators are notified when a new software upgrade becomes available, and can upgrade with the push of a button.”
The advent of high-speed satellite communications is helping planes share information with air traffic controllers while flying over remote and oceanic regions, Evanschwartz said. For instance, a request to increase altitude or change course to get around a storm can be sent automatically over a Future Air Navigation System (FANS) data link. Such data links, introduced in the 1980s, are “in very wide use now” and will continue to keep growing in popularity, Evanschwartz said.
FAA, for its part, views portable electronic devices as particularly challenging because they are widely available, come in a vast assortment of models and are not certified as part of an aircraft installation.
“For example, wireless radio frequency asset-tracking devices can be attached to unit load devices or pallets that could be loaded onto a variety of aircraft operated by a number of airlines,” FAA said. “FAA has worked with airlines, air cargo carriers, and asset-tracking device manufacturers to address issues related to electromagnetic compatibility between the tracking device and aircraft navigation and communications systems.”
FAA added it “encourages the airline and air cargo operators and device manufacturers to use devices that are qualified for airborne operation using industry environmental qualification standards.” One source of such guidance, the agency noted, is DO-160, which addresses “Environmental Conditions and Test Procedures for Airborne Equipment” and is available from RTCA.
Not surprisingly, the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350XWB wide-body airliners have the most advanced technology, including networks that hold more health status information than earlier airliners, which tend to store such data on central maintenance computers. The 787 Core Network and the A350XWB’s Information Management Onboard (IMO) can be easily upgraded to add even more computing power in the future.
“In terms of the airline market segment, that’s the state of the art in that regard,” said Evanschwartz, whose company is a supplier for both aircraft.
The new planes need to be able to store more information because they’re generating more of it. The 787, for instance, creates about 28 megabytes of data per flight, compared to about 1 megabyte on the older 777, said Linda Hapgood, program manager for Boeing Airplane Health Solutions.
“The 787 is a game-changer in terms of availability of data,” Hapgood told Avionics. “We used [that data] gathered during flight test to help us understand the airplane’s performance and optimize how we could take advantage of that data for monitoring during entry into service. In essence, we built a knowledge base of ways to diagnose, trend and predict maintenance events before the aircraft was delivered.”
In addition, 787 launch customers were able to quickly share airplane health data with Boeing, and “that enabled us to basically provide real-time support,” she said. “That was really important in the sense that it changed the way that we support our customers and how fast we could react to issues on the aircraft. The goal was to help all of our initial 87 entry-into-service customers get up the curve in fleet reliability as quickly as possible.”
The 787 sends to Boeing and airline operations centers an average of 136 reports per flight, including data on flight performance, fuel efficiency, oil consumption trends and carbon dioxide emissions. In a “real-life example,” an airline’s in-flight 787 issued alerts about a slightly unusual trend in the temperature inside an air conditioning system, according to Boeing. When the plane landed, Boeing and airline inspectors were waiting at the gate and found foreign object debris blocking a vent. Had the blockage gone undetected, the air conditioner could have failed.
Interest in greater connectivity is not limited to the newest plane models, though. Boeing is seeing strong demand among operators of long-haul aircraft, such as the 777, and even shorter-range jets, including the 737.
“A 737 operator still needs to be able to make their turn, and if the aircraft is delayed out of its first flight of the day … the next 10 flights are often delayed. It’s a ripple effect,” Hapgood said. “Access to real-time data can reduce or eliminate this ripple in airline operations, and that’s what we aim to do.”
In-flight connectivity could even reduce carbon dioxide emissions and maximize airspace capacity. Upcoming flight trials in Europe and the North Atlantic will demonstrate, among other things, how greater use of voiceless communications between controllers and pilots could make routine flight operations more seamless, Airbus said. Airbus and Boeing are among the participants in the exercise, which is sponsored by the European Union’s Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) program. SESAR aims to update Europe’s 1960s-era air traffic management system to handle increasing traffic, enhance airline safety and cut fuel consumption, air pollution and noise.
The Operators’ View
American Airlines, which, at press time, was slated to become the nation’s largest airliner with the acquisition of US Airways, has three connectivity-related programs designed to improve its operational performance.
First, the airline’s flight attendants are each receiving a Samsung Galaxy Note hand-held device that provides real-time customer information, including seat assignments, premium-class food and beverage options, a customer’s loyalty program status and connecting gate information, delay information and requests for special services.
Second, American’s deployments of electronic flight bags (EFB) will save an estimated $1.2 million of fuel annually based on current fuel prices. “This initiative will help vastly improve the work environment for pilots, increase fuel efficiency and reduce American’s reliance on paper products,” the airline said.
The first FAA-approved device to be tested for the EFB program is an iPad, and “as other tablets are developed and released, they will be evaluated for use as they are approved by the FAA,” American said. The airline has FAA approval to use the iPad on the 777, 737 and MD-80, and aims to have FAA approval for other fleet types, including the 757 and 767, this year.
Third, the airline has equipped aircraft maintenance technicians (AMT) in dozens of cities with tablets to allow them to communicate with technical services, access technical information, receive and close tasks, do maintenance history planeside and check parts availability.
The tablets “are saving precious time and helping improve on-time performance,” American said. “Before the tablets were launched, an AMT would have had to return to his desktop computer and/or turn to his manual to research the same information.”
American is adding more features to the tablets, including e-mail; GPS coordinates that “tag” an aircraft’s location after maintenance tows it away from the gate; and simultaneous viewing of multiple windows on a single screen.
Other airlines are looking at how in-flight connectivity systems originally designed for passengers could also ultimately benefit operations. For example, JetBlue plans to begin installing Ka-band satellite-based Internet service for its passengers later this year, and the “operational use of this new connectivity channel will be evaluated by both flight operations and maintenance for improved messaging and updating of our systems,” said Chuck Cook, JetBlue manager of fleet programs and technology.
Southwest Airlines, which is equipping its 600-plus fleet with satcom connectivity systems from Row 44, said it is looking at ways to leverage those connections for operational applications as well. Earlier this year, the companies hit a milestone with the 400th installation of the Row 44 system on Southwest Airlines aircraft. “We are currently only using it in the cabin for our customers, and though we are looking at ways that it can be utilized for our operations, we’re not yet at that point,” the airline told Avionics.