Gulfstream is developing artificial intelligence through an expanded use of the existing data concentration network for the G500 as an upgrade for future special mission aircraft and business jets manufactured at its Savannah, Georgia facility, executives told Avionics International in an interview on May 9.
The bulk of future development for specific artificial intelligence applications on special missions aircraft will come from partners such as L3 Technologies which is currently modifying four G550s to become the next generation electronic warfare fleet for the Royal Australian Air Force, Leda Chong, vice president of government programs at Gulfstream, said.
But the aircraft with embedded network capabilities that present opportunities for rapid upgradeability and the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning comes from Gulfstream’s business jet division, in the form of the G500/600’s data concentration network. The new network first entered service on the G500 in 2018, and has not been used yet by Gulfstream’s special missions division.
“Artificial intelligence and machine learning have really become ubiquitous in our day-to-day lexicon,” Chong said. “In the special missions space we leave that up to the primes that need to integrate the technologies on a per contract basis. We don’t go build something because we think some future customer is going to need it. We look for the technical requirements and build to those.”
Developed by GE Aviation, the data concentration network uses an Ethernet backbone and can host coding and facilitate computer language translation. It is the first time Gulfstream is using a central network that can perform smart functions and adds new capabilities by reprogramming existing remote data concentrators with software rather than adding new hardware in the form of computers and processors.
For example, when a pilot starts the engines, the network will start the navigation lights and auxiliary power unit fuel pumps simultaneously. On previous Gulfstream aircraft, these functions would have been controlled by separate computers. That presents major weight savings opportunities as Gulfstream continues to modify existing business jets to meet special-mission requirements, Chong said.
“It is a very intelligent network, that enables increased machine-to-machine language translation capability,” Chong said. “The network can also present some cost reduction opportunities through weight savings, because the use of that type of network on the aircraft eliminates a significant number of radio racks.”
Gulfstream’s special missions division is also seeing renewed interest from government and multi-mission operators for the use of its modified business jets as air ambulances.
The renewed interest is not necessarily the result of the use new engines or advanced navigation systems, but rather because of some of the distinct advantages the aircraft hold in comparison to commercial airliners, according to Chong.
In July 2018, Gulfstream delivered a modified G550 to the Beijing Red Cross Emergency Medical Center, providing the air medical industry’s first capability for 360-degree access to patients in-flight. That type of access creates the ability for doctors to perform surgery if needed.
The aircraft also features a powered gurney loading system and a bed designed to accommodate an infant incubator. Beijing has also expressed interest in adding a modified G650ER to its fleet of medical aircraft, although that purchase has not yet been finalized.
Chong said one of the reasons operators are inquiring about the use of Gulfstream jets as air ambulances is the type of cabin environment that has become standard on new G500s, G550s and G650ERs.
“Often times, medical patients can’t travel because the cabin pressure is too high,” said Chong. “On a Gulfstream airplane, when they are flying at typical cruise altitude, roughly 41,000 feet, those cabin altitudes can range from the low and mid 4,000s to the high 3,000s. So think about that, you are now experiencing an environment that is much closer to what you experience on the ground, and so that is very conducive for transporting patients.”
Chong compared that environment to what passengers typically experience on a commercial airliner with a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. The average cabin pressure experienced by commercial airline passengers is closer to 8,000 feet, with some exceptions. Experiencing cabin pressure of 8,000 feet or more can start to make passengers feel altitude sickness or a lack of oxygen in some cases. That becomes even more challenging for a person experiencing a severe medical condition.
The special missions division has also developed a patient loading system for the business jet configuration of the G550 that can be added to the aircraft in less than 30 minutes. That has drawn interest from business aviation operators who do not provide air ambulance operations to start approaching their aircraft as being ready for multi-mission operations, rather than being confined to executive lift.
Additionally, the fresh air aspect of the Gulfstream cabin environment has helped to differentiate it from competitors.
“We’ve been able to design into our engines the ability to flow fresh air every two minutes. That’s important for someone who may have a compromised immune system. But also when you think about it on the crew side, when you have crew flying for long operational missions, that’s also going to play into crew fatigue. So if you have pressurization at lower cabin altitudes and that fresh air being circulated those two things combined will contribute to a lesser fatigued crew,” said Chong.
While considering how to continuously improve the performance of future special missions aircraft, Gulfstream is also undergoing an ongoing certification campaign on the G600. The G600 program is in the final stages of function and reliability testing, which has included 100,000 hours of flying in our research and development labs environment and more than 3,170 hours of flying in the air.
The G600 completed certification tests for flight into known icing in March, with F&R testing beginning in May. The testing also covers a range of flight conditions, including hot and cold temperatures; low and high humidity; day and night operations; low and high field operations; and varying weather.
The G600 and G500 are nearly identical aircraft, so similar in fact, that Colin Miller, senior vice president of innovation and engineering at Gulfstream, said that when he did his first test flight on the G600 he did not even recognize the difference until they landed and his co-pilot congratulated him on completing his first G600 flight.
Miller said that the flexibility of the data concentration network featured on the G500 and G600 is what will allow them to keep the aircraft’s electronics refreshed while also providing a bridge to eventually introducing artificial intelligence for health trend monitoring.
“If you’re going to replace your airplane every 30 years, are you willing to live with the electronics that are 30 years old? There’s a pace of development in the digital space that is much faster than probably any aircraft would be refreshed for individual owners. So how do you manage that gap? One way is by building very resilient environments that are flexible and the data concentration network sets that up for you,” said Miller.
The entire user interface featured across all 10 touchscreens on the G500/600 flight deck can be completely transformed simply by changing the code. Those changes require no replacement of hardware, only a reprogramming of the data concentrator network’s remote data concentrators.
“I can automate functions and put better and improved health trend monitoring I can put new predictive functions in, we might even have some algorithms that represent AI that are helping with pilot workload in the future,” said Miller.
Around 1,500 engineers at a facility in Savannah dedicated to research and development are evaluating the use of predictive maintenance analytics on critical aircraft parts. Miller describes one of the smart functionalities controlled by the network to include the use of self checking the speed of the opening and closing of the G500’s engine valves. The data concentration network tells each valve when to open and close, and an embedded health trend monitoring system measures how fast that is occurring.
“Artificial intelligence and machine learning become important when you want to know how far into an aircraft’s life cycle will that valve start to fail,” Miller said. “Most of AI is not actually thinking, it is pattern matching. Computers are much better at seeing patterns than humans are. An AI engine can look at how many years a part has been in service, and what’re the average number of life cycles it can endure before it will need to be replaced.”