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Making the Connected FMS a Reality

The connected flight management system is slowly becoming a reality through software updates and an expanded use of high speed connectivity and aircraft interface devices by pilots.

The connected flight management system is slowly becoming a reality through software updates and an expanded use of high speed connectivity and aircraft interface devices by pilots.

A flight management system is the main navigation computer used by pilots to take off, cruise, ascend and descend and land an airplane. Flight plans are uploaded to the FMS to provide waypoints that the aircraft navigates between airports. The waypoints are routed to the autopilot, which maintains the aircraft’s heading, unless a pilot decides to hand fly the airplane instead.

But the most direct path between two airports is not always the most optimal, with weather patterns and changes in headwinds and tailwinds having a significant impact on an aircraft, no matter how smart its FMS computer is. These basic elements of flying that have been a staple of the FMS since the early 2000s and the way pilots interact with their FMS will become a lot more dynamic as the concept of the connected FMS becomes more widespread.

Honeywell’s Connected FMS

Avionics engineering teams at Honeywell Aerospace are researching and developing ways to further improve the concept of the connected FMS that has already been established with Honeywell’s FMS data link service. Operated by their Global Data Center, the service takes a pilot’s requested flight plan up to four hours before takeoff, and updates with the latest wind and temperature data available 30 minutes prior to takeoff.

The service also enables the FMS to recommend optimal step climbs, top of descent points and descent trajectory.

Right now, Honeywell’s cockpit systems division is researching and developing ways to advance the ability of their existing FMS to interact with EFB third party applications.

“One of our biggest investments is on the connected FMS,” Mike Ingram, vice president of cockpit systems at Honeywell Aerospace told Avionics International during a visit to their manufacturing and future research labs facility in Phoenix, Arizona.

“This allows for filed flight plans to easily transfer from your iPad/EFB to your avionics without needing to manually enter them. For FMSs in larger business jets, they are also going to feature more graphical flight planning in the future, allowing pilots to manipulate your flight plan on a map versus typing it in to an MCDU,” said Ingram.

Another focus area of research and development around the connected FMS is a focus on enabling the type of automation within the aircraft’s central navigation computer that can safely allow single pilot commercial airline operations. The enablement of single pilot operations became a widely discussed issue in aviation industry and regulatory circles when a provision to enable an FAA-funded study for regulating single pilot air cargo operations was opposed by the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents more than 60,000 pilots at 34 airlines.

But as all segments of aviation continue to deal with a looming pilot shortage, the concept of single pilot operations could become a reality, and a connected FMS is one of the technological keys to safely allowing it in the future.

“We’re looking at putting an increased level of automation into the FMS,” said Ingram. “Right now, the connected way of filing a flight plan, which is really the newest way to do it, is to push it from your iPad. What if its already updated and ready to go, without the need to upload anything from a tablet? This is one way to help give the industry the level of automation necessary to enable single pilot operations.”

GE Aviation-Avionica Connected FMS

GE Aviation and Avionica are also in the process of obtaining FAA supplemental type certification for their version of the connected FMS, which focuses more on increasing the available interconnectivity between pilot tablet applications and the FMS itself.

The two companies formed a joint venture in 2018 with a focus on accelerating aircraft systems edge processing and wireless connectivity capabilities to allow operators to better acquire and analyze critical aircraft data.

Now, the two companies are ready to introduce the connected FMS to operators across all segments of aviation that fly aircraft equipped with GE’s flight management system. Their FMS is featured on Boeing 737s as a standalone system and on the Airbus A320, A321 and A330 in collaboration with Thales. It will also be standard on the COMAC C919 when that aircraft is ready to enter into service.

“What we’re really trying to create is a new interface to the FMS system, that allows tablet apps bi-directional access to the FMS. We also want to enable connected FMS communications with ground systems as well,” Gary Thelen, director of FMS product management at GE Aviation.

Thelen said GE wants to enable a new two-way link between tablet applications and embedded safety critical aircraft navigation systems that can change the isolated way in which pilots use tablets in cockpits today. For example, when a pilot today makes routing changes on a tablet after receiving updated weather, traffic or turbulence information, they must then also input those changes into the FMS by hand.

An EFB in the cockpit of a Dassault Falcon 900LX. Dassault Falcon Jet

By linking third party EFB applications directly with the FMS, pilots would be able to take a touchscreen flight route planning graphical mapping application and drag their flight path around an area of weather they’re trying to avoid. That update would then be automatically reflected within the FMS.

Thelen said GE is also focused on eventually integrating the connected FMS into some of air traffic management modernization initiatives being deployed under the FAA’s NextGen program in the United States and the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) program in Europe.

“If you consider the future, being able to marry this with some of the SESAR and NextGen initiatives on more efficiently navigating future airspace, having the connected FMS on the aircraft very much supports those initiatives,” said Thelen.

The combination of GE Aviation’s FMS (center) and Avionica’s aircraft interfacing and networking avionics (outer), create a connected FMS. GE Aviation

Both the SESAR and NextGen programs have a common goal of changing the airspace structure, procedure design and air traffic control methodology to adjust for the projected doubling go air traffic growth that will occur globally over the next decade. The ATM technologies being deployed provide the opportunity for the FMS to control or participate in other navigation systems on the aircraft for new air traffic control methods. Among these new methods are time-based metering, merging and spacing, self-separation during continuous descent arrivals and/or during the final segment.

The upgrade required for GE’s connected FMS includes a software update as well as the installation of Avionica’s aircraft interface device and onboard network server. Additionally, the tablets used by pilots will have to feature applications that are developed or updated using GE’s software development kit.

Security protocols included in the development kit provide a verification method of the app that is being connected to the FMS. When the EFB is ready to connect, it populates a numeric code that the pilot must enter into the FMS that then opens up the system for a connection directly to the app.

“This is really a marrying of GE’s FMS and our hardware,” said Sean Reilly, vice president of business development at Avionica. “We provide the bridge to get the connectivity from the FMS through communications as well as providing connectivity to the EFB.”

That’s just one of the functions Avionica and GE are looking to introduce with their connected FMS. Reilly said pilots will really start to get more usage out of the connected FMS once they’re able to start using it in-flight and tailor it to their individual operations.

“If I take off from Miami and ATC gives me a direct route to Tampa, using the connected FMS and my connected EFB I can delete a fix, and once those fixes are deleted out of the EFB, they’re also deleted from the FMS. It minimizes flight crew workload by displaying the same information on the FMS as what’s on the EFB,” said Reilly.

Avionica is also looking to continue to leverage real time data, and higher speed connectivity links that are becoming available such as Iridium NEXT. An existing partnership that they have with Cobham combines the company’s AVIATOR 300D satcom system with Avionica’s avWIFI intelligent router, enabling operators to take advantage of SwiftBroadband Safety for SwiftBroadband cabin connectivity so that pilots can use the faster cabin connectivity normally reserved for passengers today.

Reilly said the new connected FMS technology is in the process of achieving type certification for legacy Boeing 737s that feature GE’s FMS.

“We’re providing security partitioning between all three domains on the aircraft, and enhancing the FMS, iPad, connectivity and user experience for the pilot,” said Reilly.