Sharing The Pipe

By by Kerry Reals | September 1, 2015
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Cabin-based connectivity has become widely available for airline passengers, but the real business case for investing in these costly systems can increasingly be found in the cockpit. As bandwidth becomes more affordable and aircraft become more sophisticated, the list of flight operational benefits afforded by high-speed connectivity pipes is growing longer by the day.

The ability to access real-time weather updates and communicate maintenance issues immediately to the ground — to name just a couple of the benefits on that list — offers such significant cost savings to airlines that connectivity providers now believe this side of the market will eventually surpass the passenger side as the key reason for investing.

“The overall connected aircraft market will eventually overtake passenger connectivity as the driver for airline programs, as the value of the connection is recognized,” says Andrew Kemmetmueller, vice president of connected aircraft services at In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) provider Gogo. “This should be taken as a joint requirement with passenger connectivity, however, as airlines continue to define a case that can stand alone for [Internet Protocol] IP operational connectivity.”

SITA OnAir Chief Executive Officer Ian Dawkins wholeheartedly agrees that the operational side will drive demand in the future. “We see connectivity for operational uses becoming the key driver for in-flight connectivity,” he says. “At maturity, we expect passengers to use about a third of the connectivity, with two-thirds being used for operational purposes.”

SITA OnAir EFB Weather. Photo courtesy of SITA OnAir.

SITA OnAir is a nose-to-tail connectivity solutions provider, which “takes the aircraft’s entire connectivity needs into account — for passengers, the cabin, the cockpit, aircraft and flight operations, and air traffic control,” says Dawkins. “This opens new areas of opportunity that we’re exploring, extending beyond alerts and tracking.”

In the cockpit, for example, connectivity streamlines the pilots’ work, making them more efficient, according to Dawkins. He points to SITA OnAir’s recently launched its EFB Weather product, which sends live weather data, including turbulence, thunderstorms and icing information, directly to a pilot’s wireless tablet in the cockpit. “This allows [pilots] to re-route the flight to make it more efficient, reducing fuel burn,” he says.

EFB Weather, which is being trialled by an unnamed European airline this summer, can operate over a broadband link or a narrowband Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) link, using compression technology. By compressing the data, the actual size of the data transmitted between the ground and the aircraft is “relatively low,” which, according to Dawkins, means that using connectivity for operations isn’t particularly dependent on increased bandwidth.

Gogo’s Kemmetmueller disagrees. He believes the list of operational benefits is growing as a result of more affordable bandwidth becoming increasingly available to airlines. “There are many operational applications that can benefit an airline that are low-bandwidth operations, but the means of delivering bandwidth is so expensive that it makes it cost-prohibitive. ACARS is a great example of this,” says Kemmetmueller. “Gogo continues to manufacture more bandwidth for less money, which makes it easier to bring operational applications to market.”

The current focus for operational benefits centers squarely on efficiency gains, according to Kemmetmueller. “This is true with EFB advances, as well as new technology projects for maintenance and cabin crews. To maximize gains from new technology, connectivity on the aircraft often becomes a requirement in the program,” he says.

Combining tablet computers with connectivity, for example, “can enable graphical weather on an [Electronic Flight Bag] EFB for the pilot, providing earlier decision-making capabilities and highly optimizing the flight,” he adds. Without broadband connectivity, such an approach is not possible.

“The implementation of broadband networks has the added benefit of introducing IP connectivity to the aircraft, a substantial driver of cost reductions in airline automation projects, bringing to life high-value applications such as health monitoring and flight optimization,” Kemmetmueller continues.

Tablet computing applications combined with new-generation aircraft, such as the Airbus A350 XWB and the Boeing 787 — often described as “flying data centers” — have shifted the needs away from traditional avionics, over to an IP data network, according to Kemmetmueller. “In the future world, both avionics and new IP networks will play a role in aircraft communications, and airlines will see a growing need for aircraft connectivity,” he says.

This will particularly be the case for aircraft health monitoring, where the ability to send maintenance data to the ground in real time can result in significant savings for airlines.

“Combining the advanced data systems of newer aircraft with broadband connectivity does provide airlines with an opportunity to maximize data analytics on the aircraft and generate insights into the health status of the airplane,” says Kemmetmueller. “Providing health data in real time from the aircraft, both the airline and their supporting supply chain can introduce more advanced predictive capabilities to their maintenance. This can prevent or shorten delays and cancellations due to maintenance.”

For airlines that have installed broadband connectivity pipes for the benefit of their passengers, dual-use of those pipes to reap operational benefits does not necessarily require an increase in the amount of bandwidth supplied to the aircraft. Rather, bandwidth can be siphoned off for operational purposes at times of low use among passengers.

“The more bandwidth you give to a plane at any given time, the consumers will use that, but the key is that it’s route-specific and it’s time-of-day-specific,” says Aditya Chatterjee, chief technology officer at Global Eagle Entertainment (GEE). “More and more we are noticing that airlines are aware there’s bandwidth available at certain times of the day and night, and they’re reaching out to us to see how they can use it for operational data.”

Excess bandwidth can be added for critical data, such as the position of the aircraft, weather conditions and power intake, says Chatterjee, but non-critical data can be sent and accessed at quiet times, such as during the night. Alternatively, such data can be stored and extracted when the aircraft is on the ground.

“We don’t yet see this as an opportunity to sell or provide more bandwidth,” he notes. “The fundamental interest the airline has is to reduce costs by utilizing this operational data on a real-time basis — that’s number one. Number two, as part of that, is using dedicated bandwidth at a given time of day. As time progresses, once you have operational data through the pipe, that would be the time and opportunity for us to provide more bandwidth.”

GEE is seeing “substantial interest” from airlines in connecting EFBs to their connectivity systems. “Once you connect that, there is no real limit to what cockpit crew can receive and use,” says Chatterjee.

Crew tablets can also be connected, enabling flight attendants to access real-time inventory data on their iPads, as well as to process seat upgrades and credit card transactions in flight. GEE offers these services through its recently-launched AIRPRO cabin workflow management system, which looks set to be followed by a number of new solutions aimed at providing flight operational benefits over the coming months, according to Chatterjee.

The increased speeds and coverage made possible by L-band, Ku-band and Ka-band satellite-enabled FCS services — and the potential to extend the use of these services beyond the airline passenger — are opening up a whole new market for the satellite companies themselves. Kurt Weidemeyer, vice-president of aviation strategy and business development at Inmarsat, can attest to this.

“Last year we got a lot more interest from manufacturers, asking us how we can get operational data off aircraft,” says Weidemeyer. “We’re starting to see a whole industry blossom in front of us.”

Whether the onset of Ka-band services, such as Inmarsat’s upcoming high-speed GX Aviation, will be the ultimate game-changer when it comes to sending operational data remains to be seen.

“This answer is somewhat complicated,” says Gogo’s Kemmetmueller. “Any technology that checks all the boxes in terms of coverage, cost, capacity and reliability will provide the best services.” However, Gogo believes its new 2Ku capability, which uses dual-antenna technology and promises speeds of up to 70 Mbps, is a potential game-changer.

More important for operational purposes, says Dawkins of SITA OnAir, is that the data is fully integrated into the airline’s IT infrastructure.

“Ka-band is important for passenger connectivity: the increased bandwidth provides passengers with many more options. However, in-flight connectivity speeds will never be the same as terrestrial ones because of the complexities of providing the connection to the aircraft.”

The real game-changers in all of this, according to Dawkins, are the ubiquity of tablets and the introduction of next-generation aircraft: “Tablets provide the platform to deliver many of the solutions, and modern aircraft provide the opportunity to use connectivity to make significant savings,” he says.

Securing the Data

Cyber security in aviation hit the headlines earlier this year when a hacker in the United States claimed to have connected his laptop computer to the In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) system and gained access to aircraft networks on numerous occasions between 2011 and 2014.

As aircraft become ever more connected and airlines seek to use broadband pipes to send operational data, the issue of potential threats to cyber security has raised many questions. However, In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) providers emphasize that layer upon layer of security is built into all systems very early on in the design phase, and redundancy measures ensure that if security is compromised, violations are prevented from going any further.

“Every time there is a single byte of operational data discussed, the first discussion is how secure it is,” says Aditya Chatterjee, chief technology officer at Global Eagle Entertainment (GEE). “You need to convince, and get convinced, in the design of an interconnected [system] that it is completely secure before you apply for a [Supplemental Type Certificate] STC.”

Three key rules are in place to ensure that any operational data sent through an aircraft connectivity system remains secure from external intrusion, says Chatterjee. Rule number one is to enable a dedicated network for operations data which is separate from passenger communications. The second rule is that any such data can only be received “from a secured island from the plane to the ground,” he notes, adding that the data is always sent through hardwired connections to “ensure a one-way data flow.”

Rule three involves building enough redundancy into the connected system to act as extra protection in the unlikely event that the other security layers are breached. “Redundancy [measures] guarantee that, in the rare case the security barrier of the connected system is compromised, there is no way that such an action or event can ever compromise the operational data,” says Chatterjee. “It’s like you put a wall between the two systems and you can’t break the wall. If there is a problem, operational data collection still continues — it can function without connectivity, so it’s not like critical information is being lost.”

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