Product Focus: Electronic Flight Bags

By Ed McKenna | October 1, 2013
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The UTC Aerospace SmartDisplay EFB system employs a dual-partitioned architecture to enable FAA-certified software and Windows-based EFB applications to operate concurrently on the same EFB system, the company said.

Pads are quickly becoming standard equipment in the cockpits of commercial aircraft. American Airlines, the first carrier to receive FAA clearance to use the devices in all phases of flight, has spearheaded a drive to use the devices with its electronic flight bag (EFB) program, but other carriers, including Alaska Air, JetBlue, United Airlines and others, are also pursuing initiatives. The expanded use of the personal electronic devices (PED), along with regulatory changes, is shaking up the status quo in the EFB market but also offering opportunities to technology providers to develop hardware and software solutions for the growing tablet user base.

The surge in the use of the commercial off the shelf (COTS) devices as Class 1 and 2 EFBs is being driven primarily by “the lower cost of implementing these tablet-based solutions along with the cost savings they provide by removing paper,” said Jim Tuitt, business development director at UTC Aerospace Systems.

Announcing the completion of its EFB program this year, David Campbell, American Airline’s vice president, safety and operations performance, said removing the heavy kitbag from its planes saves a minimum of 400,000 gallons and $1.2 million of fuel annually based on current fuel prices.

“We’ve issued more than 2,000 A061 OpSpecs for EFBs, (and) since AC 120-76B guidance was issued (in June 2012), we’ve seen an increase in the number of authorizations granted to operators,” said a FAA spokesperson. Of the OpSecs, about 70 percent were for iPads; all tablets accounted for 80 percent.

After initially using iPads as Class 1 EFBs, operators are increasingly deploying them as Class 2 systems, meaning at the very least mounting them in the cockpit and using them throughout the flight. To date, American Airlines, FedEx, UPS, Sky Leave I, Alaska Airlines, Centurion Air Cargo and Mesa Airlines are authorized to use iPads as EFBs during all phases of flight; there are also several other operators who are currently conducting validation testing, according to FAA.

Cost comparisons between PEDs and traditional EFBs can be stark. “An iPad base model costs $499 while a (traditional) Class 2 EFB base model … is $25,000,” said Luke Ribich, managing director of the flyTab team and managing partner of Avionics & Systems Integration Group (ASIG), of Little Rock, Ark.

However, on the face of it, this comparison may be unfair. Tablet computers “are not avionics (and) … are not built to the same standard and will not have the same life expectancy,” said Ken Crowhurst, senior vice president at navAero. There are also integration issues. “The device itself does not allow for USB or Ethernet connections, (and) even though connectivity is possible to some extent, it comes with a significant burden of integration efforts that need to be factored in the project scope,” Crowhurst said.

Still, the sticker price has had an impact as iPad and tablet sales have spiked, and Crowhurst concedes even with the technology’s shorter life span, “when significant financial savings can be realized in the course of that time, the COTS replacement cost simply becomes a bundled part of the return on investment, which still shows significant-enough bottom line savings to justify the entire program.”

The next step is integrating the iPad with aircraft systems. Customers say “they want them to be integrated with the aircraft and receive power and data during operations and the GPS position to drive moving maps,” said Tuitt.

The expanded use of the PEDs is being abetted by regulatory changes. “The lines between EFB classes are now blurred … so much so that the regulatory trend is to remove the class distinctions all together,” said Rick Ellerbrock, chief strategist, Boeing Digital Aviation and Jeppesen. This began when FAA introduced the concept of “Viewable Stowage” in EFB Advisory Circular AC 120-76B, which Ellerbrock said was “was instrumental in the EFB surge around mobility that we are now witnessing.” EASA’s soon-to-be-published “revised policy around EFB, embodied in draft AMC 20-25 … removes the concept of EFB ‘Class’ altogether,” he said. FAA is expected to adopt that strategy in the next major revision of AC 120-76; Class 1, 2 and 3 will go away to be replaced by simpler categorizations of Portable EFB or Installed EFB.

FAA acknowledges it “closely coordinated with EASA in developing AC 120-76C,” which it hopes to release by year’s end. “Although it’s still in the early stages of development, (it intends) to follow EASA’s lead by eliminating EFB classes, and harmonizing how Type A and Type B software applications are classified,” said a FAA spokesperson. “We are now coordinating AC 120-76B Change 1, which would let operators display ‘own-ship’ position, on the ground, as a Type B EFB application, (and) expect to publish this guidance later this year.”

In practical terms, this alignment between FAA and EASA “has really enabled carriers to see how they can quickly and with a fairly low investment realize some of the benefits for moving to an electronic platform,” said Heath Bowden, director of EFB product management for Navtech.

The value of those benefits “goes up the more integrated (the device) is with the airplane, but “the complexity of getting the approval and the cost also goes up, so it all comes down to the business case,” he said. However, it is hard to see why Part 121 type carriers would seek “approval to use some other non-certified GPS, like the iPad itself, so if they are going to use an iPad they are going to want to put some kind of approvable position information into the (device),” he said. Then, using an en route moving map “that centers itself on your location (information) … implies connecting to that bus … (which) comes with approval challenges, like needing an aircraft interface device that prevents the EFB from corrupting anything in the airplane.”

Features of the NEXIS software and hardware package, developed by Astronautics Corporation of America and ACSS, include DO-178C certification, 4.5-pound LED display and support for situational awareness applications, including own-ship.

Features of the NEXIS software and hardware package, developed
by Astronautics Corporation of America and ACSS, include DO-178C
certification, 4.5-pound LED display and support for situational
awareness applications, including own-ship.

A number of traditional EFB manufacturers are already competing to supply that interface. Esterline CMC is marshaling, for example, its considerable experience in the industry “to enable iPad and tablet operations in the cockpit, with … products, such as its Aircraft Information Server (AIS) and range of aircraft interface devices, which bridge the gap between these EFB system classes,” said Jean-Marie Bégis, director of EFB products at Ottawa-based Esterline CMC Electronics.

EFB hardware manufacturer navAero said it is embracing the increased interest in tablet devices. Through its Class 2 EFB “Lite” system, navAero has created mounting solutions for the iPad and Android devices that can achieve PMA as well as a certifiable means to achieve connectivity to the aircraft systems (power and data).

NavAero achieved an STC for its Windows Tablet version and is awaiting the pending issuance of the STC for its iPad version, said Crowhurst. “By having an integrated module designed into our mounting plate that captures and constrains the device, we are able to provide a certified connection to aircraft power.” Then, an Aircraft Interface Device or the company’s enhanced Universal Aircraft Interface Device (UAID) allows the tablet “to connect to ARINC 429, 717, aircraft discrete.”

Astronautics Corporation of America addresses the issue by interfacing a server, with a tablet or iPad, said Derek Van Dyke, manager, business development – systems at Astronautics. “We were able to do that with 802.11 (wireless LAN); we haven’t demonstrated Bluetooth, but we believe that will probably be also something that industry is going to want to see,” he said. “We can interface with iPads and certified (systems), so the airline has a path here it is not dead ended … they can go right to certified apps with it.”

In fact, the company adapted the electronic unit from its Class 3 Nexis EFB as the server used to interface with the iPad.

UTC Aerospace Systems is offering its Tablet Interface Module (TIM), “which in combination with our certified Aircraft Interface Device (AID) provides conditioned aircraft power via USB and data via USB and/or Bluetooth to an iPad or Windows-based tablet device,” said Tuitt. “Once the TIM and AID are installed in accordance with an STC, they provide the pilots the same level of access to aircraft data previously available on earlier Class 2 installations.”

With it is FlyTab offering, ASIG is not building on a traditional EFB foundation, which Ribich sees as a virtue. “Those traditional EFB companies have a conflicting management objective … they are trying to get you to continue buying their heavy expensive products, and… they’re treating the tablets as a ‘light’ technology,” he said. “It is not just a calculator … it is really an extension of their corporate flight ops department into the cockpit.”

NavAero uses the term Class 2 EFB “Lite” to define a mounted EFB system based on PED hardware such as a tablet. The above photo shows the company’s Tablet Mount installed via STC in a Q400.

NavAero uses the term Class 2 EFB “Lite” to define a mounted EFB system based on PED hardware such as a tablet. The above photo shows the company’s Tablet Mount installed via STC in a Q400.

The company, which addresses solely the iPad, has achieved several approvals including TSO C115C for its Aircraft Interface Modules through extensive product and software engineering, said Ribich. “Compressing the data and building up the database was certainly one significant challenge.”

Also, the company faces strict scrutiny from FAA and Apple, according to Van Simmons, director, flyTab software development. “You have to go through a very complicated process with Apple,” he said. “You have to synchronize what you are doing on the iPad with Apple process and … the development process of the hardware you are connecting to, so there is a lot of extra firmware that has to be written on the data conversion on the Aircraft Interface Module that goes through an authentication process that Apple requires before you get access to the device.”

Ribich said he anticipates doing the first install of the system this year for its initial customer, Nav Canada.

An App for That

As its popularity has grown, the iPad has spurred a windfall of EFB applications from developers ranging from small one-offs to major developers such as Jeppesen and Navtech.

In general, “operators are still attracted to applications that provide similar advantages similar to those of a paperless cockpit ones that can save money and/or enhance safety,” such as a moving map, Tuit said, noting “Jeppesen Flight Deck Pro and Lufthansa Systems iRoute Manual have been adapted to the iPad, some applications enable own ships position.” Also, “over the past year new performance applications have become available, (and) OEMs and others have begun adapting complicated performance capabilities to the tablet with some success.”

“We continue to see a strong interest in both air transport and general aviation markets for applications ranging from real-time weather to integrated aircraft maintenance applications, such as electronic techlogs,” said CMC’s Begis. “In the military markets, there is a need for advanced tactical awareness and datalink support applications,” he said. “Our TacView Portable Mission Display with high-end processing capabilities is often coupled to tactical datalink communications on military transport or rotary wing aircraft to satisfy this requirement.”

This year there is not only “an increased interest in weather applications” but also “moves to better integrate near real-time weather into navigation map displays for improved strategic situation awareness,” said Ellerbrock. “Another example of emerging applications is real-time connectivity into the airline operations center for updated flight information and a ‘shared view of the world,’ and real-time updates to the cockpit for optimizing the flight profile in consideration of current winds.”

With the proliferation of all the different devices, NavTech’s has been focused for the past year on developing “the next generation of flight deck centric electronic charting applications, which will be coming out the end of this year basically making (them) common across all or our platforms,” Bowden said. “We’ve also got a parallel effort doing similar functionality that is very flight deck centric for commercial operators on iPad, so that will be the next generation of ichart later this year or early next year. It will be across multiple tablet platforms, so that will be required to support windows pro tablets to start with iPad and then windows-based installed devices.”

NextGen and EFBs

Even as the iPad occupies center stage, EFB manufacturers are continuing to upgrade and test their more conventional equipment.

CMC has delivered more than 4,000 units business jet, air transport and military markets and is growing its EFB system configuration options, said Begis. The company has upgraded the processor baseline to Intel Core i7 and installed LED display enhancements on all its display-processor products. Its new PilotView CMA-1612 12.1-inch EFB comes with multi-touch capability, which will be standard on future systems, he said.

Astronautics received an STC for a Class 3 installed EFB on Airbus A320, its first STC for its most recent Class 3 Nexis EFB, said Brian Keery, manager of business development. The company also certified a new moving map. “It is a full map so it includes charts and maps starting with airport service map, and we do have a module that is an airport moving map and you can have own ships position on it and a full set of charts that are geo-referenced so carry own ships position,” said Van Dyke.

Even with all the upgrades, NextGen remains the key spur for sales of the devices. However, automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) deployment deadline is still more than five years off and enthusiasm for the program seems to have waned, according to some industry officials. “The cost of hardware acquisition for the deployment of ADS-B is the key factor that is limiting a more rapid adoption rate among U.S. airline operators,” said Crowhurst.

Regardless of the prevailing attitudes, at this point, ADS-B In and Out “are long term, so that is leaving us in this void in the near-term,” said Keery. The company has filled to void to some extent with the rollout of the iPad interface.

Still, there is activity on the NextGen front including initiatives aimed at testing merging and spacing, climb and descent and in-trail procedures. Delta Air Lines and US Airways are slated to fly in-trail procedures over the North Atlantic using the Aeronautics’ Class 3 EFBs. These should eventually yield “some hard numbers” on the advantages of in trail procedures, said Bill Ruhl, regional marketing manager at Astronautics. Since “they are over non-controlled radar environment, there are possibilities for getting some in-trail procedures before seeing a lot of NextGen coming forward.”

UTC is continuing test its Class 3 EFBs in similar NextGen test procedures. For example, in April, US Airways received FAA certification for its Airbus A330 to use the ACSS SafeRoute suite of applications, said Tuitt. The carrier has already begun testing and is planning to complete the retrofit of its A330 fleet this year, he said, noting “the operational evaluation for merging and spacing and other applications will go into full testing next year.”

An increasing number of operators are “interested in EFB systems with the flexibility to implement the ADS-B-enabled applications of the future while still meeting their mission requirements today,” Tuitt said.

Next month: Data Management

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. Product Focus Editor Ed McKenna can be contacted at [email protected].


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