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Collins Aero Chief Explains Future Vision With UTC

Our exclusive interview with Kent Statler, the head of Collins Aerospace newly re-structured avionics division.

Kent Statler has arguably one of the most exciting new jobs as a result of United Technologies’ (UTC) $30 billion acquisition of Rockwell Collins to form Collins Aerospace. The new company is the combination of the Rockwell Collins legacy aircraft electronics technologies with the various electromechanical and electronic flight bag products of UTC Aerospace Systems (UTAS).

Under the structure, Collins Aerospace will be one segment of company’s aerospace portfolio, with 70,000 employees. The other will be the legacy Pratt & Whitney division, which develops and manufactures engines for commercial and military aircraft, including the F-35.

A Challenger 604 cockpit with upgraded avionics from Collins Aerospace.

While Collins was required by international regulators to sell a legacy product line featuring flight controls and electric actuators due to UTC’s acquisition, the avionics division is only getting bigger and more technologically intensive. The restructured division, which was already generating $5 billion in annual revenue, features 5,000 engineers and plans to continue growing its wider base of more than 16,000 engineers globally.

The restructuring also integrated the information management system division of the legacy Rockwell Collins business into the new avionics division. That was previously the segment of the company responsible for managing the company’s global Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) network acquired from ARINC in 2013.

As an individual entity, Collins was already one of the most dominant forces in the global aviation electronics supply chain. Every next-generation and in-production Boeing commercial airframe features their cockpit displays as standard equipment. The first Boeing KC-46 delivered to the U.S. Air Force, for example, features an integrated cockpit avionics package for pilots and a remote vision system supplied by Collins.

Already, since the merger became official on November 27, Collins has been involved in a flurry of new activity and contracts. This includes being selected by Lockheed Martin to develop a modified version of Pro Line Fusion, new software applications and an enhanced vision system for NASA’s X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology (QueSST) aircraft. Lufthansa is also in the process of upgrading 700 of its airplanes with Collins’ ARINC Globalink services, including very high frequency, satellite communications and high frequency data links on its aircraft.

Combining the legacy Collins avionics business with UTAS presents an abundance of collaboration opportunities. UTAS is well-known for providing aircraft interface device (AID) technology and has continually expanded and improved its aircraft health monitoring offerings in recent years. Both companies have also provided other avionics offerings outside of AIDs and displays such as aircraft connectivity and radar systems.

Emirates, for example, is in the process of upgrading its 777 fleet with virtual quick-access recorder technology from UTAS. UTC expects the combination of Collins Aerospace and Pratt & Whitney to generate $50 billion in sales globally by 2020.

Going into 2019, Collins is in the earliest stages of exploring potential synergies with UTAS. Statler, who now heads Collins’ Avionics strategic business unit, recently sat down with Avionics International to discuss the company’s new avionics business model, the future of the connected aviation ecosystem and more.

Avionics International: Collins Aerospace is known for its cockpit avionics systems, displays and aircraft network technologies while UTAS has more capabilities related to smart sensors and EFB interoperability with aircraft systems. Where do you see the biggest opportunities for collaboration and development of new avionics technologies between the two companies as a combined entity?

Statler: One area that we’ll be looking at is the integration of the sensors on the aircraft with the avionics. We think there’s a huge opportunity to improve pilot situational awareness by bringing together the critical sensing technologies that resided in legacy UTAS with the displays and avionics architecture of the legacy Rockwell Collins business.

We’re also exploring opportunities to optimize size, weight, and power to take some of the cost out of the development of our systems.

We’re excited about exploring these areas further. It’s more aspirational right now than concrete, but we’re having a lot of discussions to see what’s possible.

Avionics International: One of the areas that aircraft operators continue to invest in is the enablement of faster air to ground and satcom connectivity on their aircraft. Now that higher speed connectivity is available and becoming the norm, what’s coming next in terms of capabilities for the connected aircraft?

Statler: We’re looking well beyond the connected aircraft — it’s so much bigger than that. At Collins, our focus is to establish a connected aviation ecosystem where the aircraft just happens to be a very large node on an interconnected network.

We already have the ability to transmit data over higher speed links. The next step is really being able to aggregate information on the aircraft and disseminate it to the constituents of the connected ecosystem in an actionable way. If you look at what we have now — with the breadth of systems on aircraft, positions we have for secure data routing, and the end-to-end data delivery — the pieces are falling into place to bring that future to life.

Look at what’s already happened in our homes. We all have televisions, tablets and smartphones. The bandwidth has gotten greater and greater, which has led to a tremendous number of digital applications and services that have totally transformed our lifestyles as human beings. That type of change is coming into commercial aviation. When we talk about re-defining aerospace — optimizing the flow of data and information within the connected aviation ecosystem is coming sooner than we think.

A Boeing Chinook CH-47F with an upgraded avionics package from Collins Aerospace.

Avionics International: Airlines continue to push for new and innovative ways to transmit data from the aircraft to their back offices. Now that you have your ACARS division within your avionics product line, how will the ACARS network evolve into the future?

Statler: We have existing intranets on all the next generation aircraft which enable systems and components to transmit data as it is generated, and the next generation aircraft are digitally enabled. On-board systems can be programmed so that when the aircraft enters into a certain condition, the system sends a report out to that aircraft intranet.

Another major opportunity is the leading position that we hold in terms of secure data routers on next generation aircraft. We provide the secure data routers on the Boeing 787, 777X, as well as the Airbus A350 and the new A320 and A330 aircraft. The secure data router takes information from the aircraft’s intranet, aggregates that information and securely encrypts it before it is transferred to whatever ground system that an airline chooses.

Whether it’s through Wi-Fi on the ground, SwiftBroadband, Ka or Ku band in the air, we can get the data to the ground using secure protocols. Once that information hits the ground, it gets decrypted and transmitted across our private ground network, which is already connected into nearly every airline’s back office around the world.

Today’s aircraft are generating about 10 times the amount of data as their predecessors. There is a tremendous need to take that data as it is generated and aggregate it before it’s securely disseminated to the ground securely. One it’s on the ground, our private network gets the information to the people and systems so that can use it.

Avionics International: Aerospace manufacturers are increasingly adopting 3-D printing, additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence and machine learning into their production process. Has Collins been incorporating any of these into its production or will that be a goal under the new structure?

Statler: This is an area where there’s great potential by bringing together our two organizations.

Legacy UTAS was well ahead of legacy Rockwell Collins in both additive and 3-D printing, which I think is logical if you think about it. This makes sense as they have a lot more mechanical assemblies, whereas we’re largely electronics. Our products contain mechanical elements such as hardware chassis but we did not see an immediate need to focus on additive and 3D printing technologies to optimize product performance in areas such as improved cooling air flows. These are definitely areas where we can learn more and adopt some practices.

Avionics International: From a design perspective, are you adopting any new digital twin or model-based technologies and concepts to improve your speed to market?

Statler: Collins has actually been using digital twin technology for quite some time. We have test rigs with the capability of simulating the full aircraft and all of its systems. That allows us to take equipment and put it into the aircraft, and through digital technology simulate the rest of the aircraft.

We’re really good at designing our technologies to airworthiness specification. Most of the challenges come during higher level of integration of our systems with other technology on the aircraft. That’s why we use test rigs that create a simulated, digital environment -- and as a result we can deliver a much more robust solution to our end customers than what we could even 5-10 years ago.

We also see lots of opportunities to use artificial intelligence to make sure our software is more mature and robust as we develop and bring it into the marketplace. So from a true avionics perspective, those are the two big areas. We started that journey probably about 8-10 years ago and continue to see areas where we can evolve model-based development.