How EFBs Will Define the Future of Modern Aviation

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The Connected Aviation Today editorial team had the opportunity to attend the recent AEEC-IATA EFB Users Forum. This annual Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) focused event brought together representatives from the world’s largest airlines, aviation experts, and commercial aviation solution providers to discuss advancements in aviation technology and explore what the future could hold as EFBs continue to evolve, and as connectivity becomes more readily available in the cockpits of commercial and business aircraft fleets.  

EFBs have already demonstrated their ability to make life better for flight crews, decrease costs for airlines, and make flight operations more efficient. However, there are some in the industry that thinks we’re only starting to scratch the surface of what the EFB can do.  

To better understand the potential behind EFBs, Connected Aviation Today spoke with Will Ware, the Co-Chair of the AEEC-IATA EFB Users Forum, and a Captain at Southwest Airlines. Here is what he had to share about the future of aviation and the evolving role EFBs will play in it. 

Connected Aviation Today (CAT):You are the Co-Chair of the AEEC-IATA EFB Users Forum which was recently held in Annapolis. Can you tell our readers a bit about EFBs? Why are they such an essential tool for airlines and flight crews? Why are they a better alternative to the flight bags of years past? 

Will Ware: Well to cover the basics, the Electronic Flight Bag, or EFB, is the digital version of those older leather flight cases that pilots used to carry. Those folders often contained much of the pre-fight material a pilot needed to do their job effectively, such as maps, weather charts, and other materials. 

What this tool does is replace that paper item with something much more easily accessible. The EFB is a tablet that has gone through a regulatory process defined by Advisory Circular AC120-76. This allows air carriers to utilize electronic solutions to not only replace the paper folder but to do so much more.

 “The EFB is a tablet that has gone through a regulatory process defined by Advisory Circular AC120-76. This allows air carriers to utilize electronic solutions to not only replace the paper folder but to do so much more.” — Will Ware

With cellular networks on the ground and aircraft that can provide Wi-Fi at altitude, pilots can now access more up-to-date information on weather, turbulence, communications, and more. 

CAT: How have EFBs evolved and improved since they were first introduced? Is there more capability and functionality today? What capabilities have been added and what innovations introduced since they were first implemented across the airlines? 

Will Ware: There have been some major changes, but those have mostly been tied to the changes in tablets and portable electronics, in general. When the portable EFB took off in 2010 there were a few consumer tablets on the market, like the iPad. Both the EFB and those tablets had very limited applications and those applications met very specific needs. 

In those early days, airlines just struggled with the basics of how and where to mount tablets, how to manage backup power, and how to gain approvals to use the device, itself. This led to a lot of innovation, including 5G cellular and improved aircraft Wi-Fi. Leveraging all this has allowed us to build a platform that enables the use of available technology, and the future technology we are still developing.  

CAT: What functionality and capability do you feel is missing in today’s EFBs? Are there solutions or applications that you’d like to see introduced? 

Will Ware: Today, the functionalities we are most interested in are turbulence awareness and fuel-saving applications. 

With turbulence, pilots would previously bring paper weather forecasts with them as a part of their paper folder. The issue with forecasts is that they can change since the weather is volatile. What we want to do is to provide a way for a pilot to know what the turbulence looks like right when they pull a report. 

“Recently, at the EFB Users Forum, we saw no less than eight new applications that are attempting to help the pilot save fuel. With the current high price of fuel, I expect those capabilities to continue being a major focus area in the future.” — Will Ware

One very interesting new application is Sky Path, which uses the tablet’s accelerometer to detect turbulence, report that to the ground, and finally, distribute that information to other pilots in that area. Like crowdsourcing, this allows the flight crew to change course if needed, alert passengers ahead of time, and prepare the cabin for any potential disruptions much faster than before. We want to find ways to further ingrain this technology and bring that capability to more aircraft. 

On the fuel savings front, it should come as no surprise that there is a lot of focus on this space right now, both because of the price of fuel and because of longer-term sustainability goals. Recently, at the EFB Users Forum, we saw no less than eight new applications that are attempting to help the pilot save fuel. With the current high price of fuel, I expect those capabilities to continue being a major focus area in the future. 

Once the EFB starts to interact more and blend with workgroups, we will see some major advancements. For instance, in the U.S., a dispatcher plans a flight, and they are trying their best to plan a route that saves fuel, but there are always complications. Pilots, when they are executing that plan, they have the discretion to take wind speed, turbulence, temperature, and other factors into consideration and alter their flight plan accordingly. 

Another interesting application could result from NASA projects like TASAR. As you can imagine, things like rocket launches can intrude on airspace commonly used by planes. However, there may be a way to make launches and flight plans synergize better, allowing further fuel and time savings by opening space when not in use. 

“I say this all the time: our event is where you are heard and where we can make a change, not only in regulations but also with the vendors.” — Will Ware

CAT:During the AEEC-IATA EFB Users Forum, Jon Merritt of Collins Aerospace introduced a concept that he called “application bloat.” Do you feel that the introduction of multiple, disparate applications to the EFB has become overwhelming for pilots? Is it impacting the user experience of the EFB? 

Will Ware: Absolutely, anything Jon says is worth paying attention to because he has been in this space for a long time and is a major thought leader.  

That being said, I will agree with what Jon said. In the early days, we had only a few apps, and they each had a specific purpose. Now we have a multitude of apps for charting, documents, weather, performance, de-icing, and other functionality. What’s worse is that none of these apps talk to each other, resulting in pilots needing to reenter the same data multiple times into different applications.  

The AEEC/IATA EFB Users Forum is an AIRINC function, and we have an EFB Sub-committee where EFB standards are created. One such standard that the sub-committee is working on is a standard where EFB applications could share data.  

There are some applications called “Dashboards” that are trying to consolidate data into one unified workflow and this is what Jon’s company, Collins Aerospace, is building with their new FlightHub application. There were also other examples of these apps at our event, including Aviobook, Jeppesen Aviator, NAVBLUE, and more.  

CAT: Were there any new solutions, applications, or platforms that were introduced at the EFB Users Forum that you found particularly exciting? Why did these solutions stand out for you? 

Will Ware: The flight path optimization applications that are attempting to save fuel and time are interesting, and I was amazed there were so many. But I think there is still a bit of research on how to best make those work – not only for the airline but for the National Airspace System as a whole. The vertical savings are big, but the lateral changes in closed airspace opening, aircraft saturation, weather movement, and more, make the lateral optimization interesting too. 

CAT: Aside from being the AEEC-IATA EFB Users Forum Co-Chair, you’re also a proponent of EFB advancement and adoption. Why are events like the AEEC-IATA EFB Users Forum essential? What do attendees get out of it? How do these events help advance the technology – and the aviation industry as a whole? 

Will Ware: First, thanks for letting me share my thoughts on the EFB, which are derived from more than 11 years of being deeply involved in this space and the relationship I have cultivated with other airlines and vendors.  

The differentiator of the AEEC/IATA EFB users forum is this is the meeting where we, as a body, engage regulators like the FAA, EASA, and more and we affect policy change. We do have an Expo and our vendors are a key component of our event, but showcasing vendors is only part of our event. We have presentations from regulators, airlines, vendors, and occasionally a panel for Q&As.  

I say this all the time: our event is where you are heard and where we can make a change, not only in regulations but also with the vendors. If you must pick between events, please pick ours because we are more powerful when we are aligned.  

CAT:There has been a lot of attention recently around EFB security, with a few articles raising both concerns and praise. What do you think about those concerns and what those articles had to say? 

Will Ware: Yes, I’m familiar with the articles and the subject of security. I will tell you that EFB Security is a session that we have at every EFB user’s forum conference. Each airline, each EFB application vendor, and each airframer all have very capable security teams that constantly track threats and provide guidance.  

“…we as an EFB community are highly focused on security as evident by the fact that it is a constant session in our forum…” — Will Ware

With that said, these recent articles and the regulators are inflating security concerns to a point where decision makers may develop policies that are damaging to the EFB. Remember at the beginning of this article I stated that the EFB was a place where innovation can happen specifically because it is NOT an aircraft system and let’s not forget the definition of an EFB as stated in AC120-76 section 6, which defines the failure must be considered minor or no safety effect.  

One of these articles, from a company that sells security counseling, gained physical access to an airframe grounded for COVID and destined for scraping. They then powered that aircraft and accessed a Windows-based installed EFB with a password of PASSWORD. I’m assuming this was done because the aircraft was out of service. Then they claimed that they could hack the performance app to make the runway longer and cause an accident.  

I think these people have watched Die Hard 2 too many times, where terrorists lower the glideslope, and the crew flies a Windsor 114 into the ground! 

The facts are these: most all Airlines use portable EFBs which are based on Apple’s iOS. Apple’s operating system is “Sandboxed” and thus applications don’t talk to each other. So, an aircraft in service would not allow physical access to the flight deck as that is a TSA violation, and the portable EFB would be in possession of the pilot so they would not have physical access to the device. Finally, my Airline’s security profile requires that the password is both complex and subject to frequent changes.  

 I say all of this because we as an EFB community are highly focused on security as evident by the fact that it is a constant session in our forum, but also because if people are scared of new restrictive policies that don’t fit what is happening in the EFB industry, then we will lose the ability to innovate, which would do a disservice to the potential benefits that EFB can provide. 

By the way at our last conference in Annapolis MD, we worked with Apple and EFB vendors to estimate that we have had over 250+ million flights with portable EFBs which is an amazing accomplishment in just 10 years.  

Let’s keep innovating on this platform!  

To learn more about how EFBs are being developed to make a better future for the entire industry, click here. 

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