Editor's Note

The Connected Aircraft Readies for Takeoff

By Jonathan Ray | December 1, 2015
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Connectivity is transforming the world, and the aerospace industry is no exception. With the proliferation of satellite communications, and the transformation of planes from analog vehicles into digital nodes in the sky, aircraft are generating more data now than ever. In fact, hundreds of gigabytes of data are being generated on each flight. This incredible amount of data has the potential to change the way an airplane operates — from takeoff to landing to maintenance — making it smarter and more efficient.

The current challenge is that all of this data is being stored on different parts of the airplane, and across the broader aerospace ecosystem. Very little of it is shared or transferred to the people who need it, when they need it, and with the insights of how the data can be better used. For the most part, airplanes up to today have been islands of information connecting at dial-up speeds. Now that we are at the forefront of global high-speed connectivity, we can revolutionize the use of aircraft data to improve operation efficiency.

What Exactly is the Connected Aircraft?

It’s all about doing more with the data generated by the aircraft. During flight, the availability of live data can improve safety and efficiency. For example, the availability of strategic weather information to a pilot can be sporadic in different parts of the world. This can not only impact passenger comfort but also the efficiency of a route, especially if a plane has to fly through the bad weather. With real-time weather data, or the ability to crowdsource weather information from various weather channels, airplane travel can be smoother and flight plans optimized as the pilot maneuvers to leverage the best-weather conditions.

At the same time global high-speed networks such as GX Aviation will make bandwidth, data storage and processing more accessible to the aviation industry. This opens the door to track, aggregate and analyze data from various parts of an airplane such as the brakes, the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) or other mechanical components that historically have not been connected. When data generated from mechanical systems like brakes or APUs can communicate and correlate with an electrical system such as the flight management system, we can create smarter and secure predictive maintenance features for airlines and operations.

Consider a scenario where an aircraft experiences a fault one hour into a flight. Current systems may not be able to send critical information about the fault in real time. With greater connectivity, data regarding the fault, its location on the airplane and the specific information about the flight when the fault occurred will be sent via satellite communications to a service center for diagnosis and resolution. Maintenance teams will be ready to repair the problem as soon as the aircraft lands.

In addition to better maintenance, improved connectivity will allow for the free flow of information between airplanes in the sky. This means the aircraft, pilot, passengers and operations personnel will use the best method of communication and processing based on the hierarchy of tasks to be done, in essence turning the aircraft into an operating system to develop applications on.

This will create a more immersive and seamless experience. For example, cockpit systems will be aware of situational details such as aircraft location, flight objectives, airspace restrictions and phase of flight. These details will all be updated continually and shared with pilots of aircraft in the vicinity, providing them with clear information that will guide them in making the right decisions.

How do we get to this Connected Aircraft?

To realize these applications and experiences, new capabilities need to be developed for the connected aircraft that go beyond the particular communications pipe being used, whether satellite communications or wireless routing.

The aerospace industry is on the brink of a transformation brought about by access to and the availability of massive amounts of data. How we develop new tools and techniques to harness its power securely will be key to shaping the future of flight aboard the connected airplane.

Just as the Internet and high-speed connectivity did for consumers and businesses, they will revolutionize the aviation industry as the connected aircraft takes flight.

Carl Esposito is the vice president of marketing and product management at Honeywell Aerospace.

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