New ONS, Connectivity Tech Drives Improvement in Aircraft Maintenance

By Woodrow Bellamy III  | August 4, 2016
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[Avionics Today 08-04-2016] Onboard Networking System (ONS) technology is growing with new onboard components and off-board communications links helping operators improve their daily operational maintenance processes. Avionics Magazine recently caught up with engineering experts from Avionica and Electronic Logbook (ELB) software provider Ultramain Systems to discuss how some of their latest products are giving airlines the ability to constantly monitor the heath of planes as well as improve the decision making process around maintenance.
The Boeing (NYSE: BA) 737 MAX 8 pictured here after completing high altitude flight testing in La Paz, Bolivia, is testing ONS and other technologies during its flight testing campaign. Photo by John Corrigan.
Boeing first introduced the ONS several years ago, giving airlines a way to digitally store entries about irregularities associated with aircraft components and systems in a way that previously required a paper logbook. Now, as more airlines see the benefits of ONS on newer aircraft, both Avionica and Ultramain are seeing demand for ONS-related technology to be retrofitted on in-service and legacy aircraft. 
"The idea is to carry with you onboard these data analytics applications that can improve the operation of the aircraft based on the data being always available on the aircraft. You have various applications running on the onboard network servers, with each application serving a different function. Since first introducing the ONS concept, Boeing has been continually educating airline operators on how the technology can improve their operations. From Avionica’s perspective, we’re starting to see operators asking: ‘Well, if this technology is so important for the newer aircraft, why can’t we have that type of technology retrofitted onto our existing fleets as well?’" Avionica Vice President of Sales Anthony Rios told Avionics Magazine. 
FlyDubai is a recent example of this. After flying Avionica's first generation satellite communications system for several years, the company has selected the second generation version of the system for new aircraft they are taking delivery of this year, mainly because of the ONS feature, Rios said. The Middle East carrier was already committed to installing the Satlink Max system, so they decided to also add the company’s AviONS onboard network server to automate their aircraft maintenance log-booking process. 
"We included a wireless hotspot function on AviONS, so not only is it a server but it also provides that wireless capability so that you can wirelessly connect [Electronic Flight Bags] EFBs to it. Once you’re connected that way — be it wireless or wired — EFB applications can communicate with the server and retrieve different types of data for different functions. One function, for example, is an EFB moving map function or application, which needs to know the aircraft position, longitude and latitude information. Instead of relying on the iPad to communicate and obtain the GPS signal required to populate that position information, a lot of airlines are turning to ONS technology as a way to retrieve the flight data, because it has the ability to pull that information from other onboard systems," said Rios. 
Avionica is also currently working with Ultramain Systems to combine the functionality of its ONS and satellite communications hardware with the software providers ELB technology. Ultramain Systems Director of Flight Technologies Larry Lenamon, also a commercial airline 737 pilot, said his company's ELB software made its industry debut on an Air France KLM Boeing 777-300, before eventually becoming standard equipment on the Boeing 787. He explains the ELB as a method for electronically storing entries about malfunctioning systems or components in an onboard database, versus a paper logbook. Once a pilot or crewmember enters a note about a system into a mobile tablet device that is synced with the onboard server, the entry is automatically stored in the onboard database. Then, if the aircraft is equipped with satellite or Air-to-Ground (ATG)-based connectivity, ground-based maintenance personnel can access it and prepare to immediately service the malfunctioning component or system when the aircraft lands.
"There’s always cabin issues, for example a bad In-flight Entertainment (IFE) video screen. The previous process for an airline would be to record that in a paper logbook. The electronic logbook does the same thing, it gives them the ability to be free of the paper logbook, and instead that data for all those entries, is being stored electronically in the database, an onboard database," said Lenamon. 
Ultramain is currently in the process of developing a web-based application, E-justify, that will give airlines a way to justify the business case around retrofitting in-service aircraft with ELB and ONS technology. The company is also working with Avionica and others to extend more of its ELB technology to the iPad and other mobile tablets. 
"This new version of the ELB software was designed for mobile and its initial launch platform is iOS. This gives crewmembers and pilots the ability to connect to the onboard server, make an entry, and then when the aircraft lands, maintenance personnel can connect to that same system, view what was entered and take the necessary action to correct it. That's where the Avionica unit can further enhance the log booking process, because their hardware is connected to the Iridium network which allows that entry to be immediately sent to our ground server where it then can be accessed by the airline's maintenance personnel," said Lenamon. 
Ultramain also has a partnership with Gogo, to enable similar functionality with the IFC provider's onboard servers and off-board ATG- and satellite-based connectivity platforms, according to Lenamon. 
Both Ultramain and Avionica see the capabilities for ONS-driven improvements in predictive maintenance continuing to expand, enabled by new high bandwidth, high-speed Internet Protocol (IP)-based technologies becoming increasingly available. 
"Right now we can offer ONS capability in both retrofit and forward fit applications with Iridium's current network, but we’re moving toward these integration with faster bandwidth connections like Iridium Next and Swiftbroadband. That's going to provide options to connect and interface the ONS with those new platforms to give operators the ability to do what's already capable today even more efficiently with a faster and wider link," said Rios.

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