Electronic flight bags (EFBs) have been gaining popularity all over the world with various operators for several years — replacing paper charts and binders with tablets and computer screens in the cockpits of all types of aircraft. Many operators have even eliminated paper altogether alongside the implementation of EFBs to further reduce costs. Now these EFBs are becoming more integrated with the flight deck, and their functionality is improving dramatically.
Helping to drive this improvement is a new market that is further enhancing the usability of the cockpit EFB. Aircraft interface devices (AIDs) are hardware platforms that enable the interface between an EFB and the aircraft databus. By connecting an EFB with an AID hardware platform, the EFB moves away from being simply a reference tool in the flight deck and becomes a powerful real-time data-crunching tool as well as a communications and information center.
This technology pushes the aviation industry closer to a more integrated and smarter cockpit — one that can better communicate with ground support staff like dispatchers and maintenance personnel, can make better decisions regarding flight performance and weather avoidance for streamlined operations, and improved fuel efficiency. Overall, it makes the aircraft more visible to operators in ways previously impossible or unimagined by trimming fuel burns, improving flight safety and enabling predictive maintenance.
According to a report from marketsandmarkets.com published January 2017, the AID industry was worth approximately $115.9 million in 2016, and it’s expected to grow to $230.8 million in 2021. Most of this growth is forecasted to come from the civil aviation sector in the form of retrofitted installations, as operators seek to modernize existing fleets. However as technology improves, it’s certainly possible to see this become standard installations, with new aircraft and retrofitting options widening to more fleet types.
The AID hardware provides an interface between the aircraft, an EFB and sometimes a wide-area network (WAN, or internet) by using a local network via wired or wireless connection. Acquired data depends on the type of AID deployed, but typically includes position data provided by the FMS, flight information from the aircraft databus (altitude, true airspeed, temperature, etc.), as well as an ACARS connection. The WAN connection can either be supplied by a cellular connection or a satcom link, which may or may not be used in conjunction with passenger in-flight entertainment.
Flight-crew EFBs are now more than just reference tools with connectivity to airline operations, flight information from the aircraft and the ability to coordinate information across multiple EFBs. With simply a connected AID, the ability to digitally deliver flight release papers to the aircraft could reduce operating costs and streamline operations.
Another functionality that some AIDs provide is the ability to run applications onboard the AID itself, allowing for more complex computing to be done completely independent of the EFB. This has a few benefits. First, the computing power is more robust than the FMS for performance or even the EFB. Second, having a dedicated server available for software also means that the software can run continuously in the background without taking focus away from navigation applications or reference material on the EFB.
In addition to providing a platform for reducing operational costs, an AID can improve safety. By receiving corrected position data directly from the FMS, a connected EFB can now show precise location information. This enables moving map displays for better overall situational awareness. While this doesn’t replace navigation, it can drastically improve situational awareness in relation to airspace and weather. Often, the EFB can display higher resolution information in the form of a moving map than the aircraft multi-function display. Position information can also be enabled for use on airport diagrams providing accurate location information while navigating around the airport on the ground.
With a WAN connection, flight safety can also be improved with a constant connection to airline operations and weather updates. This connection allows the flow of information between the flight crew and a dispatcher regarding changing weather conditions or operational changes that affect the flight. This connection doesn’t necessarily replace the classic ACARS infrastructure; however, it does provide more bandwidth, which means more information can be sent more quickly. With future advances in WAN connectivity and as AID technology becomes more prominent, it’s possible to see this technology completely replace the classic ACARS infrastructure.
How It Saves Money
One incredible aspect about this technology is the different ways it can save operators money and streamline operations. Aircraft system trends can be closely monitored, APU operating hours are more efficiently managed and routine maintenance can become preventative by highlighting potential problem areas before they create operational delays. With software used in conjunction with an AID, flight progress can be monitored and fuel burns can be managed with instant feedback regarding best-economy cruise speed and altitude.
Added potential for cost savings compared to current EFB programs is the removal of individual cellular connections per EFB. Currently, operators are implementing EFBs with cellular connections for the delivery of flight release data and EFB updates. Besides the added cost of each individual cellular-enabled EFB, it also comes with the increased costs of managing thousands of cellular data plans, potential for data overages and the need to manage usage. By connecting the EFB to a singular cellular connection via the aircraft AID, implementation costs and management costs are reduced, data management is simplified, and user management is centralized.
With Teledyne’s GroundLink AID+ and GroundLink Data Link, additional cost savings are achieved by using what Teledyne calls “ACARS over IP.” This is achieved by creating a proxy for ACARS through the AID and with software that bypasses the classic ACARS infrastructure and enables flight crew and flight operations to communicate via the cellular or satcom WAN connection through the EFB and AID. “The cost savings from ACARS over IP provides enough return on investment to justify the AID installation,” said Teledyne’s director of business development, Murray Skelton.
Astronics Ballard Technology has developed a product called the webFB, which it describes as an “ultra-compact smart AID.” Inside this tiny cube is the functionality of an AID to connect to the aircraft databuses, a server to run software applications and store data, as well as the ability to connect with EFBs either using its own wireless network or by connecting to a wireless access point on an existing aircraft network. “A key design element of the webFB is to minimize aircraft downtime with a simple installation method,” said Astronics Ballard’s VP and general manager, Jon Neal. “A fleet-wide implementation can be completed in days rather than years.” This quick modification is done by connecting the webFB directly to an existing system test port on the flight deck of the 737, 757 or 767 (Astronics currently has STC approval for the 737). This test port was traditionally used for maintenance functions and the Astronics webFB simply uses this connection to the aircraft databus to function as an AID. Even though it occupies the test port, it does not interfere with maintenance functions.
The future of this technology lies with the software applications currently available and yet to be developed. By creating different ways to analyze flight data in real time, there are significant opportunities to reduce operating costs. Since the technology essentially enables airlines and flight departments to undertake massive amounts of data collection, it becomes possible to see trends in places previously thought impossible.
UTC Aerospace Systems has developed a powerful pre-to-post flight planning and analysis tool called OpsInsight Electronic Flight Folder. This iPad application allows the flight crew to plan a flight and review NOTAMs pertinent to the route. In flight, it enables the crew to compare time and fuel calculations to actual performance. After the flight, a report is generated for historical comparisons. Melissa Jacob, business leader of aircraft data management for UTC, said that in addition to the EFB application, “UTC Aerospace Systems has also developed embedded applications that are hosted on our AID, which run autonomously and provide real-time information to airline operations.” Additionally, she said that UTC Aerospace Systems is working to develop “applications for acquisition, pre-processing and automated transfer of data in support of aircraft and fleet prognostics and health management initiatives.”
Another piece of software currently available is PACE’s Pacelab Flight Profile Optimizer. PACE’s website says the software “continuously reads aircraft position, altitude, weight, speed and other operational data from the ARINC 429 avionics bus (via ARINC 834 middleware) to track and display the vertical-flight profile executed so far and to quantify the current savings potential.” This powerful analysis can provide up to a 2% fuel burn savings per year according to aerospace software developer. Current methods for analyzing flight performance in flight require flight crews to either reference a chart, use the basic functions of the FMS or simply rely on experience. By eliminating the guesswork with real-time data, the flight crew can make informed decisions based on accurate information and analysis.
Imagine an aircraft that comes off the assembly line with an AID system fully integrated and enabled for use by the operator. This AID provides flight analysis in real time and allows the operator to track the aircraft in flight at all times. It enables faster communication between ground support personnel and flight crews, including the potential for high-speed data transfer. It logs every flight ever taken and provides a historical review of the aircraft systems as well as flight safety parameters. Additionally, it contains a performance database that can be used to predict performance on the ground and analyze it in real time during flight.
Instead of referencing a manual at standard temperatures and pre-determined weight intervals, this AID could give instant answers to a flight crew asking, “How high can we go?” or “How slow can we go?” No guesswork, no interpolating, just real-time accurate performance answers. More than that, it can provide accurate economy planning and performance feedback. It can provide flight crews with the necessary information to save fuel and time, along with cost savings for the operator. AVS