Connected aircraft technologies benefit manufacturers, airlines, and travelers

Aerospace leaders to discuss real-time data and connectivity benefits and challenges at SAE International’s 2018 Aerospace Systems and Technology Conference (ASTC), November 6-8 in London, England.
Connected aircraft means more than just in-flight movies, free texting, and Facebook posting with friends while in flight. In fact, the connected aircraft revolutionizes airline operations, dramatically improving fleet management, flight safety, passenger experience, maintenance, flight operations, aircraft turnaround time, and costs. For aircraft operators, connectivity presents a new set of operational benefits that were previously unavailable.
Using big data, analytics, and secure communications technology, aircraft operators are now better able to anticipate opportunities – to avoid weather, disruption, and cost, to drive faster turnaround times. Opening the data pipe to and from the aircraft offers great opportunities for flight crews, fleet managers, air traffic control, maintenance personnel on the ground, and others. The aircraft becomes a data-rich node on a large network, leveraging new technology and more reliable connections to link an airplane’s components and equipment to immediately send, receive, and analyze data.
The capabilities of the evolving connected aircraft concept go much deeper than enabling airline passengers to surf the Internet at 30,000 feet. In the future, the growing prevalence of broadband and satellite-based connectivity options will enable airlines and operators to capture data about the health of critical avionics, electronics systems, and aircraft components in-flight to provide better maintenance scheduling, or predictive maintenance, and health monitoring of aircraft fleets.
The general public perception of the aerospace market is that it is very advanced and modern; yet, a great number of platforms collect minimal amounts of data per month (yes, per month) and that data is transferred to maintenance systems via 3.5-inch floppy disc! This is not an efficient way to run a maintenance organization – neither from the operator, OEM, nor supplier standpoint. The good news is that the average age of leading airlines’ commercial aircraft is about 15 years, and getting younger, as airlines replace airplanes. That still means that about half of the fleet was in service during 9/11, well before the advent of pervasive broadband Ethernet technologies. The introduction of connected technology in the aircraft leads to nodes in the sky.

What are nodes in the sky? Within all communication networks, a node is a connection point. Air traffic management (ATM) modernization coupled with the data-centric architectures being incorporated into modern aircraft will create a network in the sky for the future. Aircraft will become nodes within airborne networks, sharing data with other aircraft, ground-based operational teams, and air traffic controllers at speeds that current Aircraft Communications Addressing, and Reporting Systems (ACARS) and Aircraft Condition Monitoring Systems (ACMS) are incapable of producing. ACARS and ACMS, while technically connected, offer data rates equivalent to dial-up, and weren’t designed to deliver maintenance data, but rather are primarily used for ground-based operational teams to measure performance during different phases of flight, such as at cruising altitude or during adverse weather conditions.
How will OEMs, suppliers, and airlines use the capabilities of these nodes in the sky to become more efficient? By streaming data on the condition of various aircraft components and systems to ground-based teams, key maintenance issues can be highlighted and teams prepared to handle them as soon as the aircraft lands. The data will be shared back through the supply chain, which manufacturers can use to enhance their products.
Better connectivity can have different benefits for different parts of the aircraft. For example, the aircraft braking system on most passenger jets today is monitored by the brake control system and maintenance teams determine whether a repair is necessary through a physical measurement of wear. The ability to monitor brake wear in real time greatly improves the process. Real-time connectivity enables aircraft operators to monitor flight-to-flight and even out wear on brakes to extend life and reduce maintenance costs.
The growing availability and prevalence of higher-speed broadband and satellite communication (SATCOM) systems provide speeds of up to 40 to 50 megabits per second (Mbps). Airlines, operators, and suppliers are starting to take advantage of that capability to enable faster, more efficient data sharing to help operational teams provide better maintenance schedules, reduce aircraft down time, and report trends back to aircraft and avionics manufacturers to enhance existing products and benefit future product development.

Airframe manufacturers are getting into the connected aircraft business. Boeing is evaluating the possibility of offering a satellite-based in-flight connectivity (IFC) system as a line-fit option on its 737, 777, and 787 commercial airliners. Having that type of connectivity on the aircraft from the production line would help operators of the 787 — which generates up to 146,000 parameters of data per flight — capture better data about the health of the aircraft while it is being operated. According to John Craig, chief engineer of cabin and network systems at Boeing, one of the major aspects of connectivity that needs to be addressed is security. Streaming data in real time will greatly enhance operational efficiency for airlines and operators, but as the industry moves forward with these new solutions, it will need to be done securely. 

“Connectivity will drive cyber solutions. We live in a safety world and the whole industry is very good at it,” says Craig. “Cybersecurity is a new paradigm in aviation; we’re going to have to protect the airborne and ground interfaces.” Boeing officials also see real value in enhancing connectivity options for operational and maintenance purposes. Airlines incur billions of dollars in expenses annually, so if they’re able to gain operational efficiencies in terms of reducing fuel burn and increasing both flight crew situational awareness and on-time performance, then “there is some real value we can get out of connectivity,” Craig says.
All this and more will be discussed in detail at SAE International’s 2018 Aerospace Systems and Technology Conference (ASTC), being held November 6-8 in London, England. I invite you to attend and get the whole picture.

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James A. Sherman, senior conference developer at SAE International, has over 25 years of business development, project management, and engineering experience with expertise in developing technology for aerospace, automotive, military, and consumer products. For the last seven years, Jim’s experience has been in the area of technical conference program development for the automotive and aerospace communities. He is the SAE International events focal point for electronics and aerospace applications and provides leadership in developing new programs for all mobility sectors. He has also been a moderator and panelist at AUVSI, CES, and SEMA events. His prior industry experience has been in business development, project management, and technology development at some of the world’s largest aerospace and defense and information technology providers, including GE, Lockheed Martin, IBM, and BAE Systems. Sherman has a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Pennsylvania State University, a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering, and a Master of Business Administration from Binghamton University.

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