The Connected Aviation Ecosystem – How Connectivity is Revolutionizing Air Travel

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The average commercial airline passenger might be surprised to learn that the broadband connectivity they enjoy using in-flight to watch movies, listen to music, or check in at the office is often not available to pilots and flight crews. In fact, surprisingly, only a small percentage of airlines have extended broadband connectivity beyond the cabin and into the cockpit.

While this may not have been a problem a decade ago when the amount of available data and information being transmitted between the aircraft and ground was more limited, it’s certainly an issue today.  With the introduction of newer generation, data-intensive aircraft, electronic flight bag (EFB) applications, and predictive maintenance tools across the commercial aviation industry, there is now more data available to airlines than ever before. Unfortunately, that data is currently being underutilized, since the cockpit connectivity needed by airlines to access real-time information is often limited.

Connected Aviation Today recently kicked off an interview series with the innovative people at Collins Aerospace, exploring the company’s “Connected Aviation Ecosystem” concept. This concept visualizes an aviation industry where all participants – airlines, airports, air traffic management, and support services – are seamlessly connected to optimize operations and enhance the passenger experience.

For today’s article, we sat down with Collins Aerospace’s Chris Mackey and Alexis Hickox during last week’s Farnborough International Airshow to talk about what would be possible if the same quality connectivity was available in the cockpit as was available in the cabin. During our discussion, we talked about how new connectivity options could power advanced capabilities, explored how aircraft could become safer and more enjoyable for passengers, and identified ways in which this technology would improve operations and make airlines more profitable.

Connected Aviation Today (CAT): How are most cockpits connected today? Are some aircraft cockpits still not connected with high-bandwidth connectivity? What connectivity options are available?

Chris Mackey: All cockpits are outfitted with at least a minimal level of connectivity today, including VHF or HF Voice. This level of connectivity is mainly due to regionally implemented mandates and is primarily used for safety services.

However, today we’re seeing a wide range of connectivity media available for the flight deck, including VHF and HF data link services, L-Band and S-band satellite communications, cellular connectivity while on the ground, and next-gen satellite communication.

With the growth of the modern digital aircraft fleet, which has advanced connectivity capability embedded in its flight control systems, it will become essential for the airline to manage flight deck and Aircraft Control Domain (ACD) data within a secure link to the ground. However, there is also an increasing requirement to support a growing ecosystem of electronic flight bags (EFB) and other applications on the flight deck, and many of these will require inflight connectivity with enough bandwidth to support updates and graphical communication from the ground.

“It’s about getting the right data and information to the flight crew when they need it. EFF solutions like FlightHub streamline the user experience for the flight crew by aggregating data that is currently distributed across multiple applications and presenting it when needed.” – Alexis Hickox

The emergence of smart onboard routers and the development of ACARS over IP (AoIP) offer the ability to provide secure routing of data via multimedia. This means that an airline can ensure that safety services and time-critical applications are treated as a priority and can comply with safety mandates while simultaneously routing non-safety traffic.

Since there are different categories of data and information that can be routed in different ways to the ground, the door is now open for airlines to use non-traditional media paths with much higher bandwidth capacity, such as cabin broadband, to complement their flight deck connectivity.

CAT: How could things like EFBs be better and more effective if the pilots and cockpits have high bandwidth connectivity? What new applications and capabilities could be made available in the cockpit?

Alexis Hickox: More than 80 percent of the world’s commercial airlines are now equipped with electronic flight bags. The ability to eliminate paper initially drove the adoption of the EFB and has resulted in an overwhelming majority of airlines utilizing the technology. Now, all the information that was available to the flight crew on paper in giant binders is data that can be displayed on a tablet.

The lack of IP connectivity that Chris referenced is a limiting factor for EFBs. It restricts the applications pilots can use and keeps them from accessing real-time information that would be useful for the flight crew – such as up-to-date weather reports or turbulence alerts.

By enabling the flight deck with a secure IP or broadband connection, the aviation industry can unlock the untapped potential for tracking and managing an aircraft more accurately and efficiently.

The recently released Collins FlightHubTM Electronic Flight Folder (EFF) application is a great example of this. This new solution gives flight crews access to aircraft and performance data at their fingertips. Automated data collection and analysis ensure that information is quickly communicated between dispatch and the flight deck to enhance decision-making.

CAT: Why is an EFF necessary? What does FlightHub do that other EFB applications or systems can’t?

Alexis Hickox: It’s about getting the right data and information to the flight crew when they need it. EFF solutions like FlightHub streamline the user experience for the flight crew by aggregating data that is currently distributed across multiple applications and presenting it when needed.

“The longevity of an aircraft is typically +20 years or more. As a result, airlines will have to continue to manage a mixed fleet of older legacy and new digital aircraft under a similar operational environment for decades.” – Chris Mackey

With fewer applications to manage, flight plans can be easily adjusted to the most optimal and economic routes to help improve planning and sustainable operations, unlocking the potential for time and fuel savings.

This is where the Collins Aerospace Flight Profile Optimization (FPO) application plays a role. This complementary solution can be combined with FlightHub to enhance airline operations further–using real-time data to identify the best flight path trajectory based on lateral and vertical optimization. 

This is important for airlines today. Rising fuel costs and a desire to reduce CO2 emissions are prompting airlines to look at ways to reduce fuel burn to make flights more cost-effective and sustainable. The interactive FPO app enables the flight crew to initiate re-optimization processes by working collaboratively and effectively with the airline’s dispatch. But connectivity is needed to unlock these benefits.

CAT: Are there other elements an airline must consider in its operational environment when connecting EFBs and other applications in the cockpit?

Chris Mackey: There is another piece of the puzzle – the ground management of the connected cockpit and the interconnection of the aircraft with the ground-based systems and applications. The longevity of an aircraft is typically +20 years or more. As a result, airlines will have to continue to manage a mixed fleet of older legacy and new digital aircraft under a similar operational environment for decades. This will make managing data on the ground more challenging, since each airframe can have different protocols from the aircraft and onward to the airline operation center.

Collins offers cloud-based hosting of the applications on the ground, so access to apps like our FPO solution is available to both the dispatch team and the flight crew. The ground-based architecture ensures that all the data relating to weather, aircraft movement, etc., is available to all parties when needed, regardless of aircraft platform or type.

Selecting the right partner for a total connectivity solution that offers interoperability on the ground and in the air will be essential to leveraging the most out of the connected aircraft or cockpit.

 Airlines need robust ground-based management tools that can handle multiple datalinks, applications and data sources across multiple airframes.

“For the airline, it’s about improving efficiency, increasing sustainability, and streamlining operations…By reducing delays, the airlines can also reduce compensation claims, unplanned maintenance, and fuel bills and mitigate safety situations.” – Chris Mackey

These types of tools (usually delivered via a portal) provide the airline with ground visibility into the wireless transfer of data between the AID and a secure file storage location, and can also provide several administrative utilities, including fleet management, device management, user management, file transfer configuration management, upload to and from aircraft, and other capabilities. 

This type of portal also enables closed-loop communication between the aircraft and the ground, including automated and ad-hoc data transfer.

CAT: Should an airline get the cockpit and ground systems right and improve connectivity to the aircraft – what impact would this have on the passengers? Would they even notice if systems like this were put into use? Would they benefit in any way?

Alexis Hickox: The passengers might not know they’re benefiting from it, but they would be. Increased connectivity would ultimately deliver significant improvements to the airline’s Key Performance Indicator (KPI) applications and services by delivering aircraft, engine, and other system data to the ground.

This would enable real-time diagnostics that would allow airlines to pre-position the right parts, equipment, and personnel at the gate to help make turnaround times faster and keep asset utilization up.  Furthermore, this would result in fewer delays and quicker resolutions – getting more passengers to their destinations with fewer maintenance and repair disruptions.

Solutions like FPO can also benefit the passenger. Optimizing the flight path with real-time information and data allows the airline to make better routing decisions to avoid potential weather events that could cause increased turbulence or arrival delays.

CAT: How about the flight crew and pilots? What impact would this have on them? How could increased cockpit connectivity make their jobs better and safer?

Alexis Hickox: It makes their job easier while ensuring they always have the necessary information when needed.

Today, pilots constantly review and share multiple data sources with flight crews and ground operations to ensure they have the correct information at the right time. EFFs, like FlightHub, centralize these data sources and workflows by aggregating them into one single stream to the aircraft, providing fast and simple access to flight information when the pilot needs it.

Also, an easy-to-use, intuitive user interface is important because it reduces the complexity of training and creates one standard experience across all aircraft. This makes it easy for pilots to find what they need regardless of the aircraft they’re flying.

“The lack of IP connectivity…is a limiting factor for EFBs. It restricts the applications pilots can use and keeps them from accessing real-time information that would be useful for the flight crew – such as up-to-date weather reports or turbulence alerts.” – Alexis Hickox

Finally, there’s the safety aspect. Getting access to real-time weather updates and turbulence alerts and optimizing routes during flights could enable pilots to avoid weather that might cause problems for the aircraft. This means safer flights for pilots, flight crews, and passengers.

CAT: Finally, what about the airline? Is there a return on investment for these types of technologies and solutions? What would they get out of adopting these technologies?

Chris Mackey: For the airline, it’s about improving efficiency, increasing sustainability, and streamlining operations. Real-time flight data monitoring, quality assurance, exceedance alerts, and fuel use monitoring can help reduce delays and make aviation more sustainable. By reducing delays, the airlines can also reduce compensation claims, unplanned maintenance, and fuel bills and mitigate safety situations.

Pre-flight route optimization and in-flight route optimization are potential game-changers for airlines that can produce quantifiable fuel and time savings, while reducing their environmental impact.

To learn more about the benefits of the Connected Aviation Ecosystem in the airport, click HERE.

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