ACARS Over IP and its Impact on Airline Operations

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As a new generation of smart aircraft emerges, airlines are embracing digitalization and connected cockpit applications to optimize fuel usage and operational performance. While this can provide significant benefits to an airline, the need to transmit the additional sensor, cockpit, and engine data required for these applications has put significant pressure on the existing ACARS network and is driving the need for a new solution, ACARS over IP (AoIP).

The importance of ACARS and the need for a more modern, digital ACARS solution was the main topic of a recent Webinar hosted by Collins Aerospace entitled, “ACARS over IP and its Impact on Airline Operations.” This Webinar featured a panel of experts that discussed the history of AoIP, the trends driving the need for AoIP, and the best practices to get started.

Ultimately, the panel concluded that the existing ACARS solution – while advanced for its time – is no longer capable of meeting the connectivity requirements of modern aviation. But to fully understand AoIP and its effect on airline operations today, you must first understand the history of the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS).

…by gaining the ability to aggregate and analyze the data from the aircraft, AoIP enables airlines to make more informed decisions on flight path optimization, improve turnaround times, reduce flight delays, and ultimately reduce fuel costs and fuel burn.

Alex Pond, the Regional Product Specialist at Collins Aerospace, explained that ACARS was a technology developed in 1978 by ARINC to enable airlines to track the status of their aircraft and monitor their crew hours.

Pond noted that in the mid-1980s ACARS began transmitting engine health data and system maintenance data to the ground. In addition, ACARS began to support position reporting and Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC), which became known as Future Air Navigation Systems (FAN) and is now used extensively on oceanic routes.

Pond further described how ACARS received an upgrade in the 2000s that introduced VHF Digital Link (VDL) Mode 2, which increased the speed of ACARS from 2.4 kilobits per second to 31.5 kilobits per second. With the introduction of VDL Mode 2, ACARS evolved further to become the backbone for the Aeronautical Telecommunications Network (ATN) while supporting legacy ACARS.

The requirement to deliver so much sensor, communications, and positional data over ACARS has ultimately strained the system. As Pond explained, “Over the past decade, we have seen new aircraft come on the scene, and they have much more advanced AVOX systems and are generating a lot more data. [And], as we see the continued value and importance of ACARS we are proactively strategizing how to best manage the network.”

Four trends driving digital demand

According to Daniel Welch, the Co-Founder of Valour Consultancy, a UK-based market intelligence firm that studies aircraft connectivity, ”there are four modern aviation trends that could drastically increase the demand for ACARS – and communications to/from the aircraft, in general.”

They include:

  • The proliferation of next-generation aircraft

The industry has been on a data-driven trajectory for many years now, which is primarily determined by the fundamental digital nature of next-generation aircraft. “We’ve observed a large influx of these aircraft into the commercial fleet over many years. That influx shows no sign of slowing down, particularly as we enter the recovery phase of the pandemic,” said Welch.

Additionally, these aircraft can generate and store excessive amounts of data and have more technology. “With this technology, airlines can harness that data more than ever before and put it to good use, which maximizes the operational benefits,” said Welch.

  • Connectivity to the cabin and cockpit

Today’s modern airlines are looking to enable connectivity in the cockpit and the cabin to improve flight operations and the customer experience. Connectivity in the cabin can be offered as a service to passengers, generating new revenue for the airline. Connectivity in the cockpit can enable the movement toward paperless cockpits and make essential data more readily available to the pilot.

“The goal of this trend is to improve the passenger experience, generate ancillary revenue, increase operational efficiency, and build loyalty by making passengers feel safe and have a personalized experience on their journey,” said Welch.

AoIP is the newest option for [cockpit] communications that utilizes the growing availability and decreasing cost of broadband cellular connectivity on the ground, and IP capable SATCOM connectivity in the air.

  • Pandemic drives EFB adoption

COVID-19 emphasized connected applications to enhance operational efficiency. As a result, more airlines are looking to leverage data in the cockpit to help pilots make smarter decisions and optimize their flight paths. The Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) is one solution that can give pilots access to the data that they need to make more informed decisions in flight.

“In our upcoming report on connected cabin and cockpit applications, we saw a significant uplift in the number of airlines that are hooking up EFBs to get more from real-time weather and performance optimization. A separate survey conducted with airlines has highlighted that in a post-pandemic world, we are expected to see a marked change in the adoption of these solutions both for the cabin and cockpit,” said Welch.

  • Offloading aircraft data for safety and maintenance

Turnaround times can be optimized if engine and aircraft health data is made available to maintenance crews in advance of the plane touching down. If mechanical or maintenance issues are identified in advance, replacements parts, maintenance crews, or – in the worst-case scenario – a replacement plane, can be made available to ensure that future takeoff times are met.

“Most of the airlines continue to leverage traditional connectivity links to offload aircraft health monitoring and maintenance data. Similar when we look into the future with airlines suggesting they will use this redundancy of multiple links to the cockpit for serving and offloading that aircraft data,” said Welch.

The four factors indicate how modern digitization and modernization initiatives are increasing the pressure on the existing ACARS network. Thankfully, AoIP can help to expand and enhance the capability and geographical coverage for ACARS to manage this additional traffic in a more efficient manner.

Why ACARS over IP?

AoIP is the newest option for these communications that utilizes the growing availability and decreasing cost of broadband cellular connectivity on the ground, and IP capable SATCOM connectivity in the air. Since IP communications have a much higher effective throughput than VHF and HF, it is a highly scalable long-term solution that can also be used to empower other connected systems and solutions.

…the existing ACARS solution – while advanced for its time – is no longer capable of meeting the connectivity requirements of modern aviation.

“Activating ACARS over IP really puts the airline in the right position to adopt strategically and easy to develop applications to increase the overall operational performance for the aircraft and ultimately, the airline,” said Alexis Hickox, Head of Product Marketing at Collins Aerospace Aviation. “There are different categories of data- such as air traffic control (ATC) and air operations control (AOC) – which can be routed in different ways off the aircraft onto the ground. Having a connected aircraft with multimedia capabilities means that larger amounts of non-ATC, critical traffic, and engine-related data can be offloaded by this larger IP pipe.”

Ultimately, by gaining the ability to aggregate and analyze the data from the aircraft, AoIP enables airlines to make more informed decisions on flight path optimization, improve turnaround times, reduce flight delays, and ultimately reduce fuel costs and fuel burn.

If airlines examine their modernization and digitization initiatives and identify a need to make more data available to the cockpit and cabin, and also find a requirement to access and analyze the data from planes while they’re in flight, they may be interested in taking a closer look at AoIP.

For additional information about ACARS over IP, click HERE to download a complimentary copy of the whitepaper, “Understanding the Impact of Data From New Generation Aircraft on the ACARS Network.”

 

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