by Panasonic Avionics / in Technology
Airlines know that getting passengers where they need to be swiftly, safely and reliably is not simply a matter of flying them from point A to point B. Rather, it’s the complicated balancing act amongst the factors airlines can control — and the ones they can’t.
Fortunately, The Connected Aircraft can help with both. These aircraft connections are powered by satellite communications technology enabling connectivity to devices, apps, big data, and numerous aircraft systems, all of which work together to help airlines improve flight operations. That means supporting more efficient airline operations, enabling flight paths that burn less fuel and release less CO2 into the atmosphere, avoiding weather disruptions and hazards from inflight turbulence and empowering flight crew to do what they do best: getting passengers to their destinations.
A permanently connected aircraft and the applications utilizing the links to the ground will be instrumental in helping the airline industry meet a demand that is set to grow exponentially over the next two decades. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that airline passenger traffic is set to double to seven billion people by 2034. The number of aircraft flying around the world will also have to double in response to this demand, thus creating more crowded airspace and the corresponding need to increase the efficiency of air traffic operations worldwide.
While initiatives are underway to deliver next-generation air traffic management, many of the world’s pilots — even those carrying electronic flight bags (EFB) — are flying at a disadvantage. The connectivity solutions they are traditionally bound to in the flight deck are low bandwidth and very expensive from a data transmission standpoint. These systems include VHF, HF, and traditional low-bandwidth satcom. Because of the constraints inherent to these systems, pilots are competing within a very limited amount of available bandwidth to communicate critical information with both air traffic controllers and their airline operations centers to see what awaits them in the clouds. On aircraft that lack connectivity, and even on connected aircraft where the cockpit has no access to the satellite Wi-Fi systems installed on those aircraft, pilots are flying “old-school” while facing 21st-century demands.
A permanently connected aircraft and the applications utilizing the links to the ground will be instrumental in helping the airline industry meet a demand that is set to grow exponentially over the next two decades.
Take basic communications, for example. As Jeff Rex, director of Panasonic Avionics explains, the lack of aircraft connectivity, combined with the need to exchange frequent information, has led to an inadvertent crowding of critical systems with non-critical communications.
“Right now, there’s a lot of safety-critical information that’s going over Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting Systems (ACARS). Maybe 95 percent is going over VHF. It’s a very restricted and congested frequency,” Rex explains. “If you double the amount of aircraft in the air, that’s just going to become a bigger problem. Right now, there is so much VHF congestion in high-traffic parts of the world that pilots can’t always communicate with air traffic control (ATC) right away. They have to go back and forth a few times, and there’s a lot of prioritization and queuing that goes on.”
By connecting aircraft and granting the cockpit access to broadband satellite communications, Rex expects commercial aviation could relieve 75 percent of current VHF traffic, leaving plenty of room for growth and improving the ability of VHF for ATC communications. What’s more, because of the nature of these communications, there is no significant burden to the broadband satellite system onboard as a result of this cockpit data shifting from VHF.
“It’s small data, from a satellite and Ku-band standpoint,” Rex explains. “It’s an easy thing to do technologically, but it requires getting over regulatory and security hurdles on the aircraft so that those pipes can be opened up. We’re working with airline partners to do that now.”
There are a number of operational benefits by giving pilots the ability to both stay in touch with dispatch throughout the flight and receive live data that could affect their original flight plans. Weather is one of the areas where The Connected Aircraft can make all the difference — between delayed and on-time, between hazardous and safe, and between on-time and diverted.
With weather patterns continuously changing, flying without live weather updates becomes just an unnecessary hindrance to the best flight paths for airline operations, minimized fuel burn, and passenger and crew safety and comfort. The longer the flight segment, the more impactful such inflight weather updates can be, which is especially true on transatlantic and transpacific flights. These are the most profitable and some of the most frequently flown routes in the world. Such long-range ocean routes will become more turbulent in the coming years, according to a study by The University of Reading.
Pilots rely on operation centers to keep them up-to-date, and must negotiate with ATC on alternatives when weather disruptions occur, but relying only on legacy communications systems means the room to negotiate is limited. Without full weather visibility, including access to the high-resolution data that allows pilots to make informed decisions, their skills at plotting safe routes around weather are underutilized.
“The picture that airlines have in their operations center, with internet access, is more complete,” Rex says. “They can look at the flight plan and do dynamic rerouting, because of the picture they have in front of them, but the pilots don’t have that same picture of the weather. They don’t have access to high bandwidth connections which could update the weather applications on their electronic flight bags.”
“Pilots are very good at pre-planning and using forecasts,” Rex says, but on a 10–12-hour flight, those forecasts become less reliable. “If you have a forecast that’s seven or eight hours old in your electronic flight bag, the weather could have changed dramatically.”
On connected aircraft where cockpit communications are enabled, pilots have access to dynamic weather information which gives them an edge to negotiate flight paths and perform their own dynamic flight planning.
This can be very useful to avoid flight diversions as they near their destination when the weather will affect landing or routing into the final destination. It gives pilots the edge to negotiate priority with ATC, or to arrange a different routing with dispatch, saving fuel and time. Flight crews are increasingly demanding access to this live information which can only be enabled through a true broadband connection.
“I talked with a group at one of our major airline customers a couple of weeks ago and the crew are the ones saying, ‘This is crazy. I have internet capability on the back of my plane and I’ve got an iPad that, if I go to my hotel room I can use to do all of my flight planning and weather planning and all of the different logistics that go with communicating with an ATC pre-flight, but then I go into my own airplane and I can’t use the connection to continuously update that information inflight.’ It greatly empowers pilots to be able to do that,” Rex says.
One concern keeping airline decision makers on the fence about deploying a connected aircraft strategy — and holding up certain levels of cockpit communications for airlines that operate connected aircraft — is, understandably, security.
While the safety and security of flight are the top priorities of aviation, there is a lot of misinformation in the marketplace about inflight connectivity.
Some hackers, who claim to want to help the airline industry, have made irresponsible claims of breaching systems in exchange for self-serving offers to consult on security improvements. These claims have been proven false, but their spectre looms.
In fact, aviation’s connectivity community has security experts working with them to constantly monitor for any potential vulnerabilities. Systems developers have designed robust security defenses that isolate flight-critical systems from non-critical communications.
“There’s a very secure dividing line between the cabin connectivity and the safety-critical systems that fly the aircraft,” Rex says. “There’s a way to enable the functionality, the bandwidth and the interactivity of the broadband systems to the benefit of airline operations, while maintaining the security,” Rex continues.
Systems developers have designed robust security defenses that isolate flight-critical systems from non-critical communications.
While security will continue to be a foremost priority for all stakeholders, flying offline is a liability for airlines, both competitively and operationally.
To meet the needs of tomorrow’s airspace, airlines will need to take advantage of all the technological resources at their disposal. That means more efficient aircraft, new partnerships on the ground and new connections in the air.
The future is connected, and there’s no need to wait 20 years to claim the benefits.