As airspace mandates come into effect and a continued desire to improve fuel burn and overall efficiency grows, airlines across the globe are performing aftermarket avionics upgrades on their aircraft. Meanwhile, airframe manufacturers are constantly working with customers and suppliers to ensure they are able to accommodate modifications for in-service aircraft. Avionics Magazine caught up with Bob Dankers, director of avionics modifications for fleet services at Boeing, to discuss some of the latest modifications Boeing is introducing for in-service aircraft. Dankers has an extensive background in avionics upgrades. He has been with Boeing for 27 years and became the director of avionics modifications in 2007.
Avionics Magazine: What are some of the most common types of avionics modifications on legacy airframes that Boeing is seeing demand for right now?
Dankers: To me, the legacy airframe is anything that is in the field, or in the airline’s fleet. They could still be in production or they could be out of production. Depending on the model, we’re seeing a large amount of demand for some of the airspace mandates that are in front of us to comply with, and depending on if you’re talking about North America or Europe. There are other regions that generate their own requirements as well, such as the mandates in Australia. The two biggest ones are the NextGen efforts that the FAA is doing and the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) effort in Europe. TCAS 7.1 is an example. That mandate went into effect Dec. 1, 2015 in Europe. We are seeing a lot of demand for that and we have delivered a lot of solutions already.
Another mandate is Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) Out. We are doing a lot of work on that. Most of our demand right now is coming from laying in the wiring provisions that will be set up to allow the proper parameters to be broadcast on the transponders that are on the cusp of being certified or approved for installation. We are laying in the wiring demands now in advance of the transponders being qualified under DO-260B, which allows additional parameters to be output from the transponders down to the ground.
GPS navigation solutions are another one. On 737-300, -400 and -500, operators are looking for lower cost GPS solutions. In response, Boeing is now offering a Global Position Sensor System Unit (GPSSU) solution for these airplanes. The GPSSU solution is a lower cost solution when compared to Analog Multi-Mode Receiver (MMR) solutions that are out there for classics.
We are also seeing a lot of demand for anything that has to do with air traffic data communications to the ground, whether that’s a Future Air Navigation System (FANS) activation in the U.S., or over oceanic airspace such as the North Atlantic Tracks, or Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) over the Air Traffic Navigation (ATN) network in Europe.
Avionics Magazine: What are some of the wiring changes required for ADS-B?
Dankers: On wiring for DO-260B, it is not common because as the 737 has progressed in its life there have been changes to the airplane, some of which are actually laying in of provision wirings for ADS-B. The next generation 737s, for example, some are out there with no provisions and from different variations on the equipment that we’re laying the wires into whether it’s the Flight Management Computer (FMC), or what have you, and others on the 737 NG that came up in production have some provisions, but not all the provisions for DO-260B. It all depends on where you are at in the life of the NG. Those are the types of variations that we are seeing in that particular fleet, other fleets are different, they’re all a little different depending on if there were provisions and when did they get laid in, etc.
Avionics Magazine: More civil aviation navigation authorities are implementing more Performance-Based Navigation (PBN) procedures. Can you give us some examples of legacy Boeing airframes that would need modification in order to start flying the more advanced PBN procedures, such as Required Navigation Performance Authorization Required (RNP AR)?
Dankers: As you know, we’ve always been an active supporter of this, RNP AR approaches, because it helps the airlines; it gives them shorter approaches and saves fuel and limits the noise exposure. There are issues with its implementation, however, though that is a little different from the equipage questions.
Some examples are through the 737 Classic, with the GPS that’s used, there are RNP capabilities. We also just completed a program on the MD-11, upgrading the capability of that airplane, and that software is now available for the fleet if they choose to implement it. We are also looking at other legacy platforms: our MD-80, and MD-90 models. We have some abilities to upgrade those, should the airline customers want them. I will say that is a program that is ongoing. It is not ready today, but we are undertaking a program to do that, we have different solutions for different models.
Avionics Magazine: Regulators in both the U.S. and Europe are working to facilitate domestic CPDLC in their domestic airspace. Is Boeing working with vendors on an upgrade path on legacy airframes to enable CPDLC, or is there already one available?
Dankers: That’s a little bit of a tricky question. You have FANS for the oceanic and the United States and you have CPDLC using the ATN network in Europe. Typically those are an either/or type of installation depending on where you are going to operate. The next progression in some of our models off the production line now have this so called dual stack where you can do both, depending on where you operate. The 777, the 747-8, and 787 has that. We do have a path to get there in retrofit, but we don’t offer it today. And so, we definitely have standalone solutions for all of our models, with the exception of the MD-80, and MD-90. Those currently do not have that upgrade option yet, but we’re working on that as a long-term solution. The dual-stack configuration once it gets closer will have retrofit solutions should customers make that demand.
Avionics Magazine: What types of modifications is Boeing considering for improving Wi-Fi connectivity for airline operational use?
Dankers: As far as the flight deck, we are excited about that type of connectivity, and we think there are lots of opportunities for operators to improve their operations through connectivity on the flight deck. Those operational improvements can include better fuel management, crew management and maintenance management by communicating real-time information between the airplane and the ground — and that is always going to help the airline in its operations. Our newer solution that is currently being designed is with capabilities, and we are looking at how to retrofit that. We have an offering called the Onboard Network System (ONS) that will help us connect with the ground with quality flight data, and probably some interaction with the EFB that will occur as well.
Avionics Magazine: How far away are we from all avionics modifications becoming software-based, with no needed change for hardware?
Dankers: The trend is tipping more toward software-based avionics, but my opinion is that I don’t see how you get to a position where everything will be software based. Just looking at the obsolescence alone, when you look at the life of an airplane, obsolescence hits before the airplane is done in its production life and there’s hardware replacements along the way.
We are obviously not the main goal of the computer industry. We are not their main customer. We have to live with whatever they are developing, so the obsolescence hits us fast. The later airplanes are moving more federated systems with more Line Replaceable Units (LRUs) into centralized modular functions with a big chasse and a bunch of cards for different functions, and I think that definitely is getting to be the more flexible approach. Therefore, you are going to move more toward software-only modifications, changes or even new features. Another aspect of this is how much spare throughput memory I/Os are available for these features after you have introduced the initial airplane. You could just do changes by software only: the more spare capability you put into a system, the more other design parameters come into effect, such as power and weight and other elements. So, I don’t know if we will ever get there, but I do see that we are getting better. You look at a 777 or even the 787 and those are aircraft that are going to be a lot more software-based modifications than hardware-based.