Connecting the Cockpit: Data Streaming Tech Leads the Way to Streamlining Operations

By by Juliet Van Wagenen | February 1, 2015
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Connectivity in the cockpit is coming into its own. As aircraft become more equipped with Internet and connections become more reliable through satellite-based systems and broadband technology, this access to data is expanding and companies are developing new equipment to improve cockpit operations for pilots and flight crews. The ability to send and share data with ground crews while in-flight allows pilots to make real-time and more informed decisions about weather or aircraft maintenance, while big data and predictive analytics are leading the way to new applications — many of which are available to the pilot directly in the cockpit through smartphones or tablets.

“More than 100,000 flight crew professionals now use tablet devices that connect to allow company communication and access to dynamic, real time information both outside and inside the flight deck, including during all phases of flight,” says Rick Ellerbrock, director of strategy at Jeppesen and Boeing Digital Aviation. With the digital transformation of flight information taking place, Jeppesen has already seen massive adoption of real-time flight dispatch information such as flight plans, weather, graphical NOTAMs and company communications all available on the pilot’s Personal Electronic Device (PED).

Most importantly, connectivity is opening the door to more effective data sharing, which increases operational efficiency and safety, allows real-time information sharing and more complete awareness for the flight crew, cockpit and ground. Maintenance operations are improving as well, through in-flight aircraft health diagnoses that monitor systems and allow the crew to bring in an aircraft before a problem occurs, scheduling more convenient and less costly repairs.

“There is a revolution in the air,” says Gregory Ouillon, head of the e-aircraft program at SITA, a company that specializes in air transport communications and Information Technology (IT). “Real-time decision making, big data and predictive analytics, mobility, new applications, content and connectivity for all. The IT revolution is now reaching the aircraft with the advent of broadband connectivity, in the air and on the ground.”

But as new solutions come into play, challenges and questions arise that must be answered just as quickly by companies that are capitalizing on connected tech in the way of handling the data influx and new data platforms as well as how to keep operations secure.

Bigger, Stronger, Faster Data

As aircraft data sharing becomes enhanced by faster broadband and satellite communication systems at speeds of up to 40 to 50 Mbps, operators stand to benefit from increased awareness for pilots and maintenance crews. By streamlining the sharing of in-flight aircraft health information, airlines can schedule more effective maintenance operations and reduce downtime, among other advantages. It falls on the shoulders of companies such as SITA and Rockwell Collins ARINCDirect, however, find new and effective ways to manage the increase in data.

“In the last three years, SITA has seen an increase of data sharing between its customers of more than 30 percent,” says Ouillon, noting that as SITA’s messaging network switches more than 25 million messages a day. “There is hardly any process today that is not automated and digitalization of processes is expanding,” he says. This is exacerbated by the fact that the industry is constantly seeking increased operational efficiency. “To maximize the usage of saturated air space; increase aircraft turn-around time; or improve passenger through-put, all of these efficiencies rely on richer, and more frequent, exchange of information between players throughout the air transport industry”

To absorb the flood of information, Ouillon is predicting that much of the information now passing though ACARS can be transmitted to EFBs. “The volume of data transmitted over ACARS data link is increasing, notably on new generation aircraft. Although availability of new IP-based communication systems provides additional air-to-ground communication paths, ACARS will continue to be used for Aeronautical Operational Control (AOC) message transmission,” says Ouillon. “In addition, many airlines embarking on Electronic Flight Bag programs would like to have their EFBs benefit from existing communication systems for some time-critical transactional messaging while in-flight.”

It is envisioned that nearly 15 percent of messages currently handled by the Multi-Function Control Display Unit (MCDU) could be moved to EFBs, and the information then used by new EFB applications, thus providing a more complete and intuitive view of the operational information in the future. The FAA determines which messages can be transferred to EFBs in this regard although, essentially, Ouillon says, EFBs can support applications that have failure condition classifications considered to be a minor hazard or less. “So the messages that can be moved from the MCDU to the EFBs include Aeronautical Administrative Communication (AAC), such as issuing ramp service requests (paramedic service requests, cabin service request, etc.) and Aeronautical Operational Control (AOC), such as receiving updates to text-based weather reports (METAR or TAF),” says Ouillon, who notes that this shift is already happening and we can expect to see it pick up rapidly in the next five years.

The key to using all this new data effectively relies on synchronization, or enabling all areas of the aircraft industry to access the same data, at the same time, to streamline operations. “Longer term, what you’ll see is as bandwidth and connectivity to the airplane becomes more ubiquitous and allows for faster connections over time, you’ll see more real-time synchronization,” says Rockwell Collins director of Business Aviation Marketing, Adam Evanschwartz. This will allow pilots in the airplane and operations personnel on the ground to have common views of the same information. If ground dispatchers and pilots are looking at the same view of weather and an approaching storm in real time, for example, they are likely to make more informed decisions.

Aircraft health management is another platform that would benefit greatly from synchronization. Crew-alerting messages about abnormal situations with systems on the airplanes would allow for prompt responses from maintenance crews. “[Synchronization] is really the next frontier,” says Evanschwartz. “It’s going to generate significant demand. It’s going to generate significant value in terms of flight operations safety and predictability and efficiency going forward.”

New Aircraft, New Challenges

Manufacturers also stand to benefit from the connected cockpit through increased monitoring and transmitting of data parameters on aircraft, as information regarding current systems and aircraft trends can be gathered to help OEMs in improving future offerings. For this reason, many manufacturers are making the move to include In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) systems as line fit options. Boeing, for example, recently announced the decision to include Global Eagle Entertainment’s Ku-band satellite connectivity system as a line fit installation on the Boeing 737. The company is also currently looking at the possibility of offering IFC as forward fit on the 777 and 787 models. Alongside opportunity, these new, data-loaded aircraft are changing the connectivity landscape.

“Another key driver for aircraft connectivity is the new generation aircraft like Boeing 787 and Airbus [A]350. Being IT-driven, they ‘fly on data,’ and they call for significant changes in established aircraft processes. OEMs and aircraft manufacturers are designing new high-performance and sophisticated avionics and aircraft, which rely on connectivity and IT to operate. They are also expanding their portfolios of advanced aftermarket services and e-services,” says Ouillon. These new generation aircraft require the exchange of richer information to support new aircraft health monitoring practices, and these new practices require manufacturer protocols that airlines have to accommodate, which can be challenging. For now, operators can turn to dispatch services such as ARINCDirect and SITA, to format the transformation and message distribution, making it more viable to implement collaboration practices as operators scramble to understand and unload information safely on new aircraft.

The Airbus 350 XWB provides a prime example of the ever-increasing capabilities connectivity allows the pilot. The next generation aircraft’s cockpit is set up to mimic an office, with six large LCD display screens to showcase flight information as well as applications available on an Apple iPad to allow for “access to constantly-updated information and high-quality, data-rich communication,” according to Airbus. These communications are enabled through a secure Internet connection between the cockpit, ground and satellite stations and displays info such as aircraft health and graphic monitoring of meteorological conditions for the pilot. Through this connection, the pilot can then send information regarding in-flight problems, including imagery, to ground crews enabling a more collaborative process. Another step forward in the A350 XWB is a video conferencing option between the cockpit and the ground, which the manufacturer hopes could provide an invaluable resource to pilots in moments of crisis.

A Connected Future

Pilot using Rockwell Collins’ ARINCDirect flight planning services.
Photo courtesy of Rockwell Collins.

As passengers come to expect constant connectivity and operators equip in suit, cockpit operations stand to benefit from the IFC systems on board. Currently, an estimated 3,000 commercial aircraft are installed with high speed Wi-Fi solutions, with over 10,000 targeted for the same in the near future, according to Ellerbocker. While originally designed for passenger entertainment, these high speed pipelines coming available on air transport aircraft will likely be applied to the cockpit as well, and sooner rather than later. “It is worth noting that we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg here and the opportunities for applications leveraging connectivity, especially as airplanes become more connected, are nearly endless,” says Ellerbrock. These opportunities include both flight operations and improving safety margins in the way of aircraft health monitoring,

“One of the main areas we will see improved flight operations is around strategic hazardous weather avoidance,” says Ouillon. SITA, for example, is working to test its AIRCOMConnect system “in scenarios where significant weather events such as CAT [Clear Air Turbulence] or CB [Cumulonimbus Clouds associated with convective turbulence] can be uplinked to the pilot’s EFB in-flight to allow him/her to visualize the weather phenomenon for the whole route rather than just the weather radar’s view of the next 45 minutes flight time.” By expanding the pilot’s view of the entire route, Ouillon believes the pilot can reroute the aircraft more efficiently along its flight path and avoid severe turbulence that may be otherwise masked, allowing her to make safer and more economical path choices.

Also entering the arena are Aircraft Interface Devices (AIDs), which provide secure interfaces between tablet EFBs and onboard avionics and airplane systems. “In addition to sharing secure one-way airplane information to the EFB, they also provide elegant mobile interfaces including ships power, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, and light-weight tablet securing mechanisms that meet regulatory requirements,” said Ellerbrock. An interface that allows avionics and EFB cockpit operations to interact seamlessly opens the door to a future with a truly and completely connected cockpit.

While there’s no doubt we’re just seeing the beginning of connectivity’s role in enhancing flight operations, it’s important to proceed carefully when laying the groundwork. “The important point regarding the connected aircraft is that we are at a critical point in time,” says Ouillon. “The industry — airlines, equipment suppliers and manufacturers — need to take the correct approach now because the decisions made over the next few years will determine the infrastructure for decades ahead.”

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