Multiple converging trends in satellite communications (SATCOM), the Internet of Things (IoT), and connected devices are creating a unique opportunity in the aviation industry. With the amount of data capable of being delivered to and streamed off of planes to stakeholders on the ground, there is a massive opportunity for innovation and advancement inflight safety and efficiency.
One of the companies at the forefront of leveraging data and advanced technologies to make their flights safer and more efficient is the delivery giant, UPS. The company operates more than 1,200 flights per day and owns a fleet of almost 300 aircraft. And they’re constantly looking for ways to make those aircraft and flights more connected so they can streamline operations and make flight crews safer.
We recently sat down with Kevin Swiatek, the Flight Operations Manager at UPS, to take a deep dive into some of the technology trends enabling digital transformation on aircraft, and the advanced technologies that could soon become reality as a result.
Connected Aviation Today (CAT): In our last discussion, we talked mostly about pushing data to the flight crew in the cockpit. What about getting data off the plane to the people that need it on the ground? Is that something that we’re able to do today? What is enabling it?
Kevin Swiatek: It’s certainly something that we’re starting to see, and that I anticipate we’ll see even more of in the near future. One of the factors enabling this is higher capacity, more resilient SATCOM solutions.
We’re starting to witness the rise of higher bandwidth SATCOM systems. They’re launching satellites with higher throughputs and more capacity that make it possible to send data from the plane – in flight – back to the ground in real-time.
If operators are going to invest in systems that utilize this data, there needs to be SATCOM resiliency to ensure that it’s always available. So, we’re starting to see what I’ve termed dual dissimilar SATCOM systems, where operators utilize two different SATCOM systems capable of communicating with the ground. So, if an operator has a satellite system, network provider, or avionics fail, they can still communicate.
“If the avionics information…is available to the maintenance crew while the plane is still in flight, they can see these trends and deviations as they happen, and identify that aircraft have an issue before they even land. Then, they’re in maintenance mode as soon as the plane lands. That’s important to operators, who often have less than 30 minutes, or an hour, to turn a plane around and get it ready for its next flight.”Kevin Swiatek
Also, if they’re going to be streaming all that sensor data off the airplane, it needs to go somewhere. This is leading to the introduction of data repositories and dashboards that are available to the operator that allows them to aggregate data and analyze it for actionable insights.
CAT: With more data coming off the aircraft, what do you see happening in prognostics and health management (PHM) and engine health management (EHM)?
Kevin Swiatek: I see a path for these systems to expand and add new capabilities. There is a lot of potential to redefine and evolve how we identify problems on an aircraft.
Right now, the engine-indicating and crew-alerting system (EICAS) and airplane condition monitoring function (ACMF) software that’s widely used across the industry enable maintenance personnel to set exceedances. These systems will send an alert to the maintenance personnel or the flight crew, notifying them if a reading goes above the established level. From there, the airplane health management systems reference large datasets from historical aircraft data to give the maintenance team insight into what’s most likely going wrong.
That’s great, but I foresee the expansion of that. And this is the direction where UPS is really driving the airplane interface device (AID).
I foresee the AID connecting to different pieces of avionics in the aircraft to deliver a better understanding of the logs that are being generated within these different pieces of avionics. If we can access and provide that information to the pilot in the air, and the maintenance crew on the ground, we can establish baseline data and start looking at standard deviations.
For example, let’s say the aircraft was experiencing a small hydraulic leak. The EICAS won’t send an alert until several gallons have been lost. Knowing that the system was full prior to taking off, wouldn’t it be nice if the maintenance, dispatch, and flight crews could see that the level had dropped significantly? Wouldn’t it be better to identify that it’s trending down so they can take action before reaching the coast and going oceanic?
That is a major advancement in aircraft safety. If they had access to the data from different avionics, plane and engine health management systems could leverage that data more than just sending alerts on exceedances.
CAT: How do you see the use of predictive analytics growing over the next few years?
Kevin Swiatek: This is where I’m the most excited. If the avionics information that we discussed previously is available to the maintenance crew while the plane is still in flight, they can see these trends and deviations as they happen, and identify that aircraft have an issue before they even land. Then, they’re in maintenance mode as soon as the plane lands.
That’s important to operators, who often have less than 30 minutes, or an hour, to turn a plane around and get it ready for its next flight. If a plane has a problem that isn’t identified until it lands, the maintenance crews can spend an hour or more simply troubleshooting the event. That puts the entire operation behind schedule.
However, if – when the plane lands – the maintenance team is prepared to swap out a piece of equipment or solve a minor issue simply by understanding the avionics log files to pinpoint the problem, that plane can be turned around and ready for its next flight with no interruption. Or should it be a larger issue, they can proactively take the aircraft out of service and preemptively identify a replacement aircraft to take its place.
CAT: We’ve talked about PHM and EHM, and the potential for more proactive maintenance on aircraft. What is the end game for connectivity? Where is this all going?
Kevin Swiatek: We have an idea that UPS is working to develop that could really take advantage of a more connected, more AI-enabled aircraft that we call Cockpit Analytics. It’s something that I think could be another massive positive step towards making aircraft even safer for operators, passengers, and flight crews.
When we read the event reports that pilots issue following problems during flights, we start to see trends and common occurrences happening in the cockpit. When there’s a situation or issue in the cockpit, where things are not going perfectly, crew members that might be in the back of the plane as passengers – or jumpseaters, as the industry calls them – will sometimes come up to the cockpit. They do so to assist the crew members as they work through the checklists that pilots follow when issues occur.
“…let’s say the aircraft was experiencing a small hydraulic leak. The EICAS won’t send an alert until several gallons have been lost. [W]ouldn’t it be nice if the maintenance, dispatch, and flight crews could see that the level had dropped significantly? Wouldn’t it be better to identify that it’s trending down so they can take action…?”Kevin Swiatek
Having that third pilot in these situations helps tremendously. The pilot-in-command can continue to fly the aircraft, and the copilot, or First Officer as we refer to them at UPS, and that third flight jumpseating crew member, can focus on the communication and working through their checklist.
Can we replicate that system, but do it with technology and connectivity? Could we set up a connected smart device that helps the flight crew get to a particular section in their aircraft operations manual (AOM)? Can it be programmed to guide them on the checklist to help them understand which systems failed and which are still available?
When these situations arise, could you also start streaming aircraft data to the ground where maintenance professionals and fleet-based subject matter experts are available? Could you develop a dashboard that replicates exactly what the pilots are seeing in the air? If so, you could have a fleet Subject Matter Expert with 25-30 years of experience working with a particular fleet and seeing everything that’s going on with the airplane, and offering the flight crew the best options for making decisions.
Also, to get pilots fully involved, we feel a picture is worth a thousand words. What would be advantageous to pilots is that we take all this data that’s being generated and easily present it to them in an organized graphic chart so they can see what’s going on during their flights. Which means that every flight they take, they’d be educated on the analytics and working proactively with the system first-hand, rather than just being a by-product of the technology.
This Aircraft Analytics concept is something that UPS feels could be very helpful. And it’s really the culmination of where many of these connected aircraft and connected cockpit technologies are heading – the ability to provide more information and safety in the cockpit.
To learn more about the benefits of increasing connected aircraft, click HERE to download a complimentary copy of the white paper, “Understanding the Impact of Data From New Generation Aircraft on the ACARS Network.”