Embedded Avionics

Next Generation Aircraft and the Business Case for Real-time Analytics in the Cockpit

By by Anne Wainscott-Sargent | February 1, 2016
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With the debut of new data-centric aircraft, such as the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350, the era of big data analytics has arrived. Passenger-driven Wi-Fi systems are leading the charge for higher upload and download speeds, but the implications of the digital transformation of flight information are potentially just as dramatic both inside the cockpit as well as on the maintenance floor for airlines. This pushes the in-flight data revolution as a pathway to increase safety, improve operational efficiency and, ultimately, enhance customer service to the flying public.

The business case for high-speed connectivity systems is being driven first in the cabin, not the cockpit, but the dramatically lower cost per megabyte is starting to make both environments attractive for industry leaders.

Real-time Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) rules the cockpit with its private networking certified for safety-of-flight communications to Air Traffic Control (ATC). The airlines will continue to rely on ACARS, which is plumbed into nearly all planes, for flight navigation and other critical tracking functions. The big question is if, or when, airlines will open up the cockpit to the much-faster, high-speed data pipes now serving the passenger cabin.

“I am pretty sure we will see broadband connectivity initially in the passenger cabin being segregated on virtual [Local Area Networks] LANs that have been certified to bring data to the pilot and bring information from the cockpit to the ground. But there is still some way to go,” says Joerg Liebe, chief information officer at Lufthansa Systems. “Inmarsat is on the verge of certifying 432 kilobits per second into the cockpit, which quite obviously could be a big step forward. It is being certified for ACARS services — it has all the reliability built into it,” he added.

Hawaiian Airlines is the first commercial airline to install Inmarsat SwiftBroadband for flight deck applications — including safety services — on its 767-300 aircraft. The airline will use Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband Safety for ACARS data messages, live Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) updates and Airline Operational Communication (AOC) voice and data.

Iridium Next is also poised to provide ACARS with broadband networking as a global service over the poles, but it will not be fast; only 1.2 or 1.4 megabits per second compared to cabin broadband connectivity, which can support 40 megabits per second or more, according to Teledyne Controls’ Business Development Director Willie Cecil. “The benefit of the Iridium system is it is much cheaper and lighter [compared with HF or classic aero],” he adds.

Teledyne Controls is a key supplier to both Airbus and Boeing for their black box data, or data acquisition unit, with their technology on most of the current generation aircraft (but not on the 787 or A350 because the data acquisition unit is now integrated into the avionics network). That data acquisition unit is connected to ACARS and is what allows the aircraft to generate reports.

Congested Networks

Lido pilot departure chart. Photo: Lufthansa Systems

Some 85 percent of traffic traversing ACARS is not needed in real time, says Cecil, a reality that has led to frequently congested networks with the rise in the amount of data being transmitted from more advanced aircraft. “ACARS doesn’t prioritize the non-time-critical feeds from time-critical, so air traffic data communications can get jammed up,” Cecil adds.

The key innovation is going to be the ability to securely and seamlessly segregate these data paths to avoid network congestion, which already prompted the European Commission to delay by five years its mandate for operators to equip their aircraft with Controller-Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) until February 2020. “We need to segregate data by two things: one is by its importance, and the other is by its volume. As a general rule, important data typically is not high volume; it’s low volume,” Cecil says.

He predicts that aircraft will continue to send critical data in real time via ACARS, while high-volume data will be sent over low-cost links (air or ground) “as a background feed, and will be prioritized differently so it doesn’t interfere with the high-priority data.”

Cecil considers the industry “at that innovation point” where the cost of sending data is affordable enough to open up new innovation.

A Data Explosion

So, how much more data is now possible with these new connectivity systems? Experts point to hundreds of megabytes of data a day on newer aircraft, representing an order-of-magnitude increase.

“With our latest model, the A350, you have 450,000 parameters of data potentially available,” says Philippe Gourdon, vice president for engineering and maintenance services at Airbus Customer Services, who compared that to the 15,000 parameters of data possible with the A320 aircraft, designed in the early 1980s.

The 787 produces an average of 30 to 45 Mb on a nine-hour flight. This includes, primarily, data from the aircraft condition monitoring function and crew information system. In addition, Boeing’s flight planning analysts run about 1.1 million flight plans a month for several hundred airlines around the world, according to Ken Sain, managing director of flight optimization solutions for commercial aviation services at Boeing Commercial Aviation.

“We are creating and leveraging more data, and data storage is much easier than it was 10 years ago,” adds John Maggiore, director of fleet and maintenance solutions and digital aviation within Boeing Commercial Aviation.

Even generations of aircraft below the A350 and the 787 are more data-capable. Bernard Hofmeister, senior manager of flight safety in flight operations for Southwest Airlines, notes that his airline has gone from 100 parameters on older aircraft to 1,100 on the Boeing 700s. “We expect practical parameters to be in the 10,000s with the Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft as the engine data set by itself has up to 4,000 data points recorded and transmitted,” he says. “The advances really are in both directions — we are getting more parameters or more sensor indicators, and you’re getting them more often.”

To compare, older flights recorded some data once a minute on the Flight Data Recorder (FDR), while newer aircraft record parameters eight to 32 times a second. “Because this data is protected, we need to be cautious about how and when to share it across other groups, like the maintenance department.”

Several industry watchers emphasize that it is the lower cost per megabyte that’s helping to make the business case.

More Immediate Engine Analytics

Perhaps one of the first places to see a business case for data in the cockpit is in predictive maintenance of engines. Basic data on engine performance has been available in 30-second snapshots for a while, but what hasn’t been is the real-time monitoring now common on all aircraft components. According to Maggiore, Boeing’s widely used Airplane Health Management (AHM) offering interfaces with engine health management capabilities offered by the manufacturers, so that customers can manage the health of the engines and systems for maximum context in decision making.

Airbus has developed a service called Airbus Real Time Health Monitoring (AiRTHM) that enables real-time health monitoring of aircraft. “Our engineers have the capability to locate the aircraft in real time and get one of thousands of perimeters of data and broadcast it to the ground in order to start troubleshooting with the aircraft while it’s still flying,” said Gourdon, explaining that Airbus’s engineering-based ground crew try to understand what has triggered the fault so “they can direct the mechanic more quickly… who can switch out the part when the plane arrives,” he says.

The service, used internally by Airbus since 2010 to perform health monitoring, is now being proposed to airline customers as a software service they can use themselves. An Expert module enables airlines to troubleshoot in-flight problems, and is already available for A330s and A380s, and should be available in 2016 for A320s, A330s and A350s. For trend monitoring, Airbus offers prognostics and risk-management software for A330s and A380s, and next year for other models.


Pilot iPad FliteDeck Pro. Photo: Boeing

Savannah-based Gulfstream Aerospace Corporation uses GE Aviation‘s Aircraft Health and Trend Monitoring System (AHTMS) on its G650 aircraft to monitor engines. Data is shared with Rolls-Royce, the G650 engine supplier, according to Robby O’Dell, program manager at Gulfstream’s Advanced Flight Deck Programs.

“A constant stream of data helps both Gulfstream and Rolls-Royce become more agile when issues do arise,” says O’Dell, noting that receiving data during and after each flight provides information across the full spectrum of Gulfstream’s G650 fleet. “Most [Original Equipment Manufacturers] OEMs and engine manufacturers are looking to use these new data sets to achieve a more reliable, more efficient engine. Reducing schedule maintenance through use of this type of data would be an added benefit… and should hopefully lead to shorter downtimes and fewer no-fault-found removals.”

Hofmeister explains more and more data parameters, coupled with a wireless/cellular downlink, will allow maintenance teams “to do a lot better assessment of engine data and in a more predictive way than is possible today.” For example, some airframe overspeeds have immediate operational impact as they require an inspection after the flight or soon thereafter. Knowledge of these overspeeds in real time would allow maintenance to get prepared for the inspection possibly even before an aircraft lands.

According to Maggiore, more than 30 U.S. Boeing Commercial Aviation customers are using information on their iPads and other mobile devices in the maintenance domain. “It’s now easy to put manuals on a mobile device, but actually it’s harder to do it in a way so it is enterprise-ready, where you have complete approved documentation at the mechanic’s device 24/7 regardless of the environment.”

Future of Data

Fuel dashboard user interface. Photo: Boeing

As the industry races to make a business case for transforming how much data is accessed in and through the cockpit, one thing is clear: there will be no shortage of innovators testing the landscape and pursuing solutions driven to heighten airline efficiency and enhance safety and the passenger experience.

Experts at Lufthansa Systems point out that, as the volume of data applications increase, it’s crucial to not overload the pilot with too much information. “It all comes down to creating value: safety, operational efficiency, cost savings. A lot of people are going to try a lot of things,” says Liebe.

GE Aviation’s Klooster says there already is a powerful business case for big data in the cockpit. “The business case is avoiding those flight disruptions and those big maintenance issues and just having the continuity and integrity of the flight,” he says.

Meanwhile, Hofmeister cautions against relying too much on technology at the expense of the pilots. “You can only do so much with data,” he says. “No matter how much data we can collect, the human element is always going to be important.”

We are creating and leveraging more data, and data storage is much easier than it was 10 years ago— John Maggiore, director of fleet and maintenance solutions and digital aviation within Boeing Commercial Aviation.Pilot iPad FliteDeck Pro. Photo: Boeing

The Mobile Device Revolution in the Cockpit

The FAA certification of iPads and other smart tablets for use in the cockpit has “opened the floodgates” with Android, iOS and Microsoft devices as Electronic Flight Bags (EFBs), noted Igor Dimnik, head of products at Lufthansa Systems. Currently, half of Lufthansa Systems’ customers are using iPads or other devices for EFB applications.

“The iPad has definitely changed the world of EFB; it’s become more mobile. The devices are cheaper to acquire. The paperless cockpit suddenly became a reality and now, five years later, the EFB growth is continuing,” observed Dimnik.

“We could never envision mobile 10 years ago. We had no idea there would be these great devices, which would allow us to deliver information to the taxiing crew, the flight crew and the maintenance crew, and how revolutionary that would be,” added Boeing’s Maggiore.

Dimnik said mobile devices like the iPad changed the way users interact with applications, making them more data-hungry. “The whole environment became much more dynamic and much more mobile,” he says.

Boeing’s Sain notes that the capability in tablets is increasing every six months. “We are seeing an increasingly upward slope in interest and adoption in technologies that will allow us to do more and more,” he says.

Anne Wainscott-Sargent
is a communications consultant and writer who brings nearly two decades of writing experience in the aerospace, satellite, telecommunications, defense, and
government sectors.

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