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The Integrated Cockpit: Fueling App Growth For Airlines

Avionics suppliers, app developers, and standards organizations are working together to ensure EFB apps are integrated properly with aircraft systems so pilots can fly smarter, leading to new levels of airline performance.

The days of pilots lugging heavy flight bags are gone, replaced with electronic flight bags (EFBs) that have dramatically improved operational efficiency. Apple’s introduction of the iPad in 2010 created a compelling business case for mobile EFBs in the cockpit. Today, 80 to 90% of the world’s commercial airlines are EFB-equipped. The ability to eliminate paper initially drove EFB adoption. Now it’s connectivity.

Cockpit Connectivity

The availability of WiFi and new integration hardware is enabling airlines to choose mobile Windows and iOS tablets to run real-time applications that enhance plane performance by providing analytics that previously were the domain of more expensive installed EFBs hardwired into an aircraft’s data bus.

Key to the EFB movement is a common framework of standards, which depends on strong cooperation between industry and regulators. That becomes even more critical with the explosion in new apps that allow pilots to see the best altitude and descent points to fly to minimize their fuel burn, among other features.

Peter Grau, principal engineer with ARINC Industry Activities, knows the forces shaping the EFB market well through his role overseeing that

program’s EFB Subcommittee and the EFB Users Forum. A licensed airline transport pilot, Grau previously worked as an engineer at Rockwell Collins.

“When the Apple iPad came out in 2010, it revolutionized everything,” he says, comparing its impact on aviation to the office environment switching from typewriters to computers.

The rate of new tablet applications has exploded, with airlines looking to bring third-party solutions and, in some instances, building in-house applications.

Sonja Schellenberg, project manager for Flight Operations IT at Lufthansa Airlines and co-chair of the EFB Subcommittee, has worked on EFBs for close to 15 years.

“What’s fascinating to me is that EFBs sit between the two worlds of avionics and IT and computing advances that surround us today on the consumer level. I like bringing these two worlds together,” she says.

Showing Aircraft Position on EFBs

Recently, the FAA has determined it will permit depiction of the aircraft’s location during all phases of flight on the EFB. This flight-positioning ruling is to be included in the next revision of Advisory Circular 120-76 (Guidelines for the Certification, Airworthiness, and Operational Use of Electronic Flight Bags), due for publication in May.

“That’s monumental. It’s similar to having GPS in your car showing your driving progress but on a much more sophisticated level,” says Grau. “The primary benefit is it will give pilots much better situational awareness – knowing where they are in relation to what’s on the ground and in the surrounding airspace.”

A340 with EFB displays. Photo courtesy of Lufthansa

This will be a discussion topic at the next EFB Users Forum June 13-15 in Vienna. The Forum and the EFB Subcommittee provide venues for regular information-sharing between industry players and regulators.

“These meetings are driving the standards and the direction that ARINC is taking,” says Robert Turner, a senior product manager for ACARS and eFlight Manager Solutions with Sabre. “Right now, we are talking about connectivity and that raises all sorts of new concerns about security. We are driving forward at quite an advanced rate, but we need to make sure all the safety and security concerns are addressed before we can grant approval to the new standards.”

The Integration Enabler: AIDs

Currently, the approach for enabling WiFi is to keep cabin and cockpit connectivity completely separate.

“Companies are going with a multi-layered approach, building with what we have on the ground but making it much more secure than you would in a typical scenario on the ground,” says Turner.

Broader use of equipment that allows EFBs to safely tap into a plane’s avionics while ensuring that the core data is tamper-proof – called aircraft interface devices (AIDs) – depends on industry embracing a common standard, ARINC 834.

“As the industry introduces more and more AID options, along with more and more EFB apps, it’s important that the applications and the AIDs adopt this standard interface protocol so that we do not have to customize all of our software for all the different hardware devices,” says Jon Neal, VP and GM of Astronics Ballard Technology.

An AID allows the cockpit EFB to obtain avionics data instantly and securely. Neal notes that until AIDs came along, airlines didn’t have a way to connect their tablet EFBs to the aircraft avionics data.

“Historically, one of the advantages of an installed EFB compared to a portable EFB was the connection to the avionics systems,” he says. That’s changing.

Astronics Ballard Technology introduced its new webFB device, which now connects avionics data to a tablet EFB. The first STC for the product was awarded last February for Boeing 737 Classic and NG configurations. “Our device acts as a small server – featuring an AID and a wireless access point/client combination device all in one,” Neal says. “Now you have a portable EFB with the same connectivity options as the installed EFB. That has closed a gap that existed between those two choices.”

Neal says that airlines are embracing the portable EFB versus an installed EFB because of the ease and speed of installation. Following an amendment to the STC issued in December, the webFB allows airlines to connect the device to an existing port in the 737’s flight deck. “That means the device literally installs in minutes,” says Neal.

Astronics Ballard Technology isn’t the only company getting into the AID arena. Sabre is testing the functionality of a new AID feature within its EFB solution sold as a component of Sabre AirCentre eFlight Manager. “We want to go live with it in the second half of 2017,” says Sabre’s Turner. “The direction everyone is headed in right now is to add connectivity in the cockpit from both on the ground and in the air, so we can then update flight data at regular intervals.”

Sabre and other avionics players are active in industry groups that are shaping the standards for EFB technology, including AIDs. ARINC 834 defines a data interface protocol between software applications and avionics data sources like an AID.

Neal notes that ARINC 834 is still in the early stages of adoption, with most hardware vendors just starting to roll out their products and getting them fitted or retrofitted onto aircraft. “Our webFB and future products will have an ARINC 834 server in them and we’re seeing more and more software applications include an ARINC 834 client interface on their side as well,” he says. “These efforts will help to standardize the data communication between EFB devices.”

Using the AID interface, pilots can do frequent fuel checks along the route as well as check their wind speeds.

“Our customers are very excited about the AID because it will save them a huge amount of manual work,” says Turner. “They will also reduce human error. It just provides a whole lot of extra functionality.”

He points out several benefits of the device, including being able to share data across the enterprise that is synchronized, to do inflight updates, and access the latest weather data.

Esterline CMC Electronics is a key player in the flight management system, GPS receiver and satcom antenna arenas. The Montreal-based company launched its own AID, called the Aircraft Information System, a little over a year ago.

“The feedback has been positive,” says Jean-Marie Begis, product line director, EFB and Aircraft Wireless Systems. He says the unit can connect to multiple aircraft systems and securely access data such as the state of the aircraft’s health.

“The other aspect of connectivity technology around our platform is it can connect and securely integrate with ground communication systems and WiFi with the Aircraft Information System being the focal point – the secure server – in the cockpit,” he says.

An early customer, SWISS Airlines, is using the system architecture to support electronic technical logs that hold the maintenance records of the aircraft. “They are on their way to establishing a paperless maintenance workflow,” Begis says. The SWISS implementation is in the process of getting regulatory approval.

UTC Aerospace Systems serves 1,000 commercial transport customers with its EFB solutions, which include an AID. One mobile application is OpsInsight Electronic Flight Folder (EFF), which allows pilots to automatically monitor how flights are progressing with actual versus planned fuel burn.

“Our customers are asking for mobile applications that utilize the data and communications capabilities and also function as an application suite where information is seamlessly shared between applications,” says Melissa Jacob, business leader, Aircraft Data Management at UTC Aerospace Systems. “Our customers seek a scalable, fully integrated, turnkey solution – hardware, software and services – for their entire fleet, regardless of OEM.”

According to Jacob, UTC also has developed embedded applications that are hosted on the AID. They run autonomously to provide real-time information to airline operations, such as flight tracking functions.

Building Your Own Apps

Some airlines are building their own applications. Lufthansa Airlines, which has bought apps off the rack and modified others, chose to develop the Electronic Flight Folder for Cockpit app completely in house using an agile process that included pilots, developers and quality testers working together.

“Every time we finished a new functionality in the software, we’d give it out to a pilot and they would carry it on their normal duty flight and provide feedback back into the development team. That was really great,” explains the project manager, Sonja Schellenberg.

“We decided to make our own application because there were some functions we didn’t find in other products,” she adds, noting that to drive real cost savings and other benefits to the airline, “it was important to supply the correct information at the right time to the pilots.”

The app will result in substantial fuel savings for Lufthansa once the migration from the paper process to the fully digitized process is completed on the 326 aircraft that comprise Lufthansa’s main passenger lines and regional aircraft, she says.

Unique to Lufthansa is its 2+2 EFB approach. Under it, pilots use Microsoft Surface Pro tablets for flight preparation, but once in the cockpit they rely on in-flight aircraft EFBs. In addition, the pilots have many connectivity options available to them during flight. “We are using every means that we have in connectivity that’s available, whether it’s 3G, WiFi, ACARS,” Schellenberg says.

What’s Next?

What are the next major milestones in the EFB space? ARINC’s Grau says cost-effective aircraft-to-ground connectivity will be a focus, which he believes will open several new avenues for airline operators. “There are security concerns and we are presently investigating opportunities to standardize this where possible,” he says.

Grau also anticipates tablet EFBs continuing to become more integrated into airline operations. “Newly developed cockpit capabilities include in-flight weather, turbulence avoidance, and optimized flight profiles,” he says. “Further integration for cabin and maintenance activities is also evolving.”

Looking ahead, Grau says the new guidance coming for aircraft position will greatly improve both safety and efficiency, adding that NextGen 4D trajectories and free flight could also become a reality. Applications to drive those functionalities will need to be developed, and the EFB will be at the center of these advancements.

Electronic Flight Bag App: ForeFlight’s All-in-One Platform

Within the GA and business jet market, ForeFlight provides a multi-platform solution that pilots and flight operations personnel can use to do route planning, brief the weather, access charts, and file flight plans and have that activity sync from desktop to mobile devices.

“It’s all about safety and simplicity for the pilot,” says Marketing Director Angela Anderson. “Within a standard interface, pilots can look at and organize maps and charts, access company documents, check their pre-flight weather, and do other flight planning (like looking at obstacles and terrain that could affect their route). They also can look at FBO data, file a flight plan, and do their entire log book activities in one interface.”

Contrast between paper and electronic flight bags. Photo: Lufthansa.

One of ForeFlight’s newest features is synthetic vision, which provides a 3D view of terrain and obstacles ahead. Anderson says that synthetic vision becomes a dynamic and reliable attitude backup when the iPad is connected to a compatible AHRS source.

“As a portable solution, ForeFlight is an independent backup from the aircraft,” she says. “We hear from customers who have had power failure in the aircraft and, because they had ForeFlight set up, they were better able to keep their cool in that stressful situation and get the aircraft on the ground safely. Having that backup has saved lives.”

Anderson credits the effectiveness of the ForeFlight app among their customers to the fact that the apps were built and tested by programmers who also are pilots. AVS