With Wi-Fi in the passenger cabin now commonplace for today’s traveling public, the cockpit represents the next major aircraft domain for IP connectivity to make its mark. From real-time weather updates to flight planning and predictive maintenance, the business case for IP-driven cockpit connectivity is here. But the question of how long it will take for operational connectivity to become mainstream across commercial airline fleets is more difficult to answer.
Industry leaders from the world of commercial aviation, In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) and satcom weigh in on this question and others, highlighting both the challenges and opportunities for a fully connected aircraft. Underscoring many insights of these innovators are the critical issues of cybersecurity and the ongoing imperative to keep IP-enabled operational gains for pilot and crew separate from safety-of-flight applications.
Today’s Cockpit Environment
“Cockpit connectivity is in a state of transition,” notes Bob Gourley, co-founder and partner of cybersecurity consultancy firm Cognitio. Aviation is a key focus of his firm, which works with a variety of industries to devise ways to protect systems and data from adversaries.
Gourley contends that most aircraft are in a state of what he terms “ACARS Plus” – that is, aircraft still depend on secure satellite or ground communications of the real-time Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), the transmission system that relies on private networking certified for safety-of-flight communications to Air Traffic Control (ATC). “We are not quite the IP-connected world yet in the cockpit,” he says.
Andy Mason, head of Technology Platforms for Kontron, a global Internet of Things (IoT) supplier of integrated hardware systems for the In-Flight Entertainment and Connectivity (IFEC) avionics market, observes that many of the hurdles have already been overcome with the acceptance of Wi-Fi in the cabin. “Using it for crew, maintenance or pilot activity requires another level of certification, but once you have authorized use of Wi-Fi on the aircraft, then it’s really just certifying the equipment to another level of safety and security,” Mason says.
Kontron was one of the first companies to deploy the Wi-Fi 802.11n standard on aircraft back in 2010, and is now deploying the latest Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ac into its product line. Today, the company supplies airborne servers for connectivity, Wireless Access Points (WAP), as well as satellite and Air-to-Ground (ATG) modem units that allow aircraft connectivity. While Kontron has predominantly focused on cabin connectivity, the company now is working on several products that will allow wireless connectivity for crew, maintenance personnel and pilots.
“A lot of our demand is coming from the major airframe companies that want to build this capability into their systems,” he says. “We eventually see the rollout of multi-level wireless networks on the aircraft that are completely secured from one another.”
Low-Hanging Fruit: Connecting EFBs
One thing is clear: connecting Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) applications represents low-hanging fruit that will be one of the first areas of the cockpit to leverage new high-bandwidth pipes. The FAA certification of smart tablets for use in the cockpit has led to widespread adoption of Android, iOS and Microsoft devices by fleet captains, though until now, they have not been used for real-time data access once the aircraft taxies off the runway.
“What customers are asking for are EFB mount, power and data connectivity systems that allow seamless IP-enabled communication between EFB applications and satellite-based connectivity systems used for passenger entertainment,” says Bernard Asare, who joined Global Eagle Entertainment (GEE) less than a year ago as vice president of connected aircraft systems at the company’s Operations Solutions and Data Analytics business.
To date, the IFEC company, which acquired market leader Row 44 in 2013, has installed its data and connectivity solutions products on over 3,500 aircraft. The company offers an integrated Universal Aircraft Interface Device (uAID), developed by its subsidiary navAero, that is an IP-enabled network switch, mini-server, data storage drive and 4G LTE modem all-in-one. This type of device is a critical element in connecting cockpit applications with an aircraft’s flight management computer, ARINC 429 and 717 avionics busses to enable real-time streaming of data over on-board Ku/Ka-band satellite communication systems.
With the streaming capability, information can be automatically downloaded off of the aircraft for flight tracking purposes, flight safety analysis, aircraft health monitoring, and weather data exchange during fight. GEE is working with airlines to manage the large data volumes now collected by building a secure cloud-based platform, called masFlight, which integrates the operational flight information streaming off aircraft with other ground-system-derived data sources, such as flight status, weather, airspace and Notice to Airmen (NOTAMS), and fuses it in an enterprise data warehouse that can be accessed by airline analysts and airline applications to drive business insights. With the integration of real-time data from connected aircraft, GEE now provides airline executives and flight operations managers with the most current and complete view of a flight’s performance.
Southwest Set to be a Full Wi-Fi-Enabled Fleet Next Year
GEE is a supplier to Southwest Airlines, which is an early adopter of tablet EFBs. According to Will Ware, a captain at Southwest Airlines who serves as the EFB team lead and chairman of the AEEC/IATA EFB users forum, the airline first deployed its electronic flight bags in 2014. The Dallas-based U.S. carrier is now doing a refresh of its EFB hardware and deploying new devices in the first quarter of 2017. The initial application to use the aircraft Wi-Fi is real-time weather monitoring, Ware says.
Until mid-2016, Southwest’s EFBs functioned much like a Kindle — “a disconnected device,” says Ware. “They were just a reader,” he explains, noting with irony that passengers with streaming smartphones and tablets had more recent updates on weather than Southwest’s pilots using paper products that are static once printed. That is changing, though, with his airline’s move to Wi-Fi-enable their EFBs through the existing in-flight wireless internet system, with some additional security measures, including authentication.
“We have slightly over 700 aircraft and a little less than 100 don’t have Wi-Fi, but those planes are going to be retired next year,” Ware says. “Then we’ll have a full Wi-Fi fleet and we’ll have iPads and other devices deployed next year with aircraft Wi-Fi and cellular.”
Pilots will, for the first time in Southwest’s aircraft, be able to access real-time weather updates that include not only conductive and convective weather but also enhanced turbulence information.
Ware admits that Southwest had to grapple with an additional technology hurdle on the road to fleet-wide Wi-Fi in the cockpit. The airline’s 737 aircraft display unit, first certified in 1997, was not permitted to have a Wi-Fi-transmitting device of a particular power level in the flight deck. However, after significant safety testing with partners, Southwest worked with GEE, which was granted a Standard Type Certificate (STC) change order allowing the airline to deploy Wi-Fi connectivity in the cockpit.
SWISS Eyes Fleet-Wide Air-to-Ground Operational Connectivity
Across the Atlantic, Swiss International Air Lines (SWISS) is also working to ensure that its technical infrastructure is in place across all aircraft fleets to support connectivity on the ground and in the air. “Our aim is to connect our entire operations — cockpit, cabin, ground and technicians,” says Andreas Bosch, manager of e-operations projects for SWISS. “In the future, all of our devices on the ground and in flight shall be able to use connectivity for operational use. However, it will take another few years until all aircraft and technical systems are ready.”
SWISS’s Bombardier C Series aircraft already has connectivity of the airline’s EFB (Techlog) and FlyPad (Purser Device) applications via the airline’s LTE and Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) systems. Bosch explains that the C Series’ cockpit infrastructure is similar to common network infrastructure systems on the ground in terms of flexible data transfer “without having to lower our IT security standards.”
“This set-up allows us to implement new requirements and processes such as in-flight flight planning and up-to-date transfer of weather data more flexibly and with less resources in order to optimize our flight management and in the end, of course, our customer service,” Bosch says.
Iridium’s aviation division sees significant opportunity for enabling cockpit applications with Iridium Certus, the company’s new service platform powered by the $3 billion Iridium NEXT constellation. Potential data speeds for Certus terminals could be from 200-kilobits per second up to 1.4 megabits per second (Mbps).
“Think of the Certus service as this fire hose of IP to and from the aircraft,” explains Brian Pemberton, vice president and general manager of Iridium’s aviation business.
He points out that Iridium’s strong legacy providing highly reliable aircraft operational and safety communications is well positioned to continue to serve airlines in the safety-of-flight space.
“Iridium’s strategy has long been to offer messaging services the airlines use today to support ACARS air traffic control messaging but layering it with an IP-based broadband capacity on top,” says Pemberton, explaining that within the larger pipe Iridium offers three dedicated voice lines: one for the pilot, one for the co-pilot and a third for cabin crew to be used for medical emergencies or other needs.
“We are working on higher throughput broadcast or multicast services in the future,” Pemberton says.
The Iridium executive observes that while the company wasn’t the first out of the gate with a connectivity solution for airlines, with the first solutions introduced six or seven years ago, the timing now with Certus may prove to be ideal given where the industry is at today.
“The airline community [when aircraft Wi-Fi first emerged] was still trying to get their heads around whether or not they needed broadband in the cockpit. Now, seven years later, they finally have said, ‘I need IP; I need broadband for my cockpit. Now let me go find the best options.’ For Iridium, it was better that we weren’t early because we are able to bring a more comprehensive solution to market at a time when the market is really ready for adoption,” Pemberton says.
New Air-to-Ground 4G Play
A much newer IFC market entrant, SmartSky Networks, is launching its 4G air-to-ground network this fall with the goal to complete nationwide coverage in 2017. Already, company officials say, there is a growing list of business aviation customers who have signed up for the early bird program.
“We consciously targeted the business aviation segment first but are now turning to commercial aviation and we are getting a very favorable reaction from them as well,” says Smartsky CEO Haynes Griffin, who expects to begin installing customer equipment early next year.
SmartSky will link up with a national network of ground towers to use 60 MHz of spectrum for its broadband connectivity service. The company has long viewed the cockpit as a key selling point to aviation customers. “We believe far and away the more important applications will be for the cockpit and for the airframe itself,” notes Griffin. “This includes things like safety indicators, fuel efficiency, carbon emissions and weather.”
Griffin says a major differentiator of SmartSky is its robust return path, which is integral to supporting Internet of Things (IoT) applications that are vital to the cockpit and airframe. “Unlike any other connectivity providers, our return path is nearly as robust as our forward path. Having that big pipe from the plane to the ground will enable monitoring and connectivity in both directions,” adds Griffin.
He points out that his network will also bring broadband connectivity to the airframe — to support everything from real-time monitoring of the engines to replenishment requirements for the galley. During the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) show in November, SmartSky plans to offer a sneak peek of patented flight-path optimization algorithms that Griffin says have the potential to significantly save in both direct operating expenses and cost of ownership on an aircraft, be it business or commercial. He contends that the best innovations and applications are yet to come, but will now be possible because affordable two-way broadband is now available in the air.
“The most exciting applications out there are yet to be invented, but those applications will have an impact in the air the way things like Uber, Airbnb and Facebook have had on the ground,” he predicts.
What will it take from a technology perspective to make cockpit connectivity commonplace across the world’s commercial airline fleets?
SWISS’ Bosch points to two crucial factors: “The solution must be flexible and has to meet our current high IT security standard. Currently, there are not many flexible solutions available that allow a safe environment for different devices. We are working on optimizing possible solutions together with the respective suppliers,” he says.
Pemberton predicts that general aviation aircraft will remain mostly in the ACARS world and won’t be fully embracing broadband connectivity in the cockpit for another decade, but the world’s larger, more mature airlines that continue to struggle to find efficiencies and improved profits will be looking at what broadband can offer much sooner.
“I think in the next two to three years you are going to start to see the commercial aviation market gaining that critical mass for IP connectivity in the cockpit. A lot of infrastructure is there today,” Pemberton says. “The aviation community is largely ready — the OEMs are clearly aggressively pursuing [Requests for Proposals] RFPs to support high-bandwidth broadband solutions for the cockpit on every airframe model now, so that is the direction the industry is going.”
The more compelling question, according to Pemberton is: At what pace will the industry move to justify the retrofit programs — will they reach critical mass early or will the aviation industry focus only on upgrading new aircraft deliveries?
However, industry leaders do agree on one thing: the business case for broadband in the cockpit has arrived, and a multitude of technology solutions that promise to accelerate acceptance and adoption in the next few years.
“The most exciting thing is we now have a high-speed pipe connecting the aircraft to our cloud-based analytics platform and access to all the data that comes off the airplane that can provide insights to our airline customers,” says Asare of GEE. “It’s very exciting that we can deliver real-time business insights on the operations of a fleet of aircraft and the preferences of the passengers on-board. That hasn’t happened before on such a large scale when using proprietary links. The metaphor I like to use is that the airplane, like your mobile phone, has become a smart device on the network connected to an intelligent cloud. That’s powerful.”
The Cybersecurity Question
With all the excitement about enabling broadband to the cabin and now the cockpit, it’s easy to forget that aircraft are vulnerable to cyberattacks just as companies on the ground are.
Bob Gourley, co-founder and partner of cybersecurity consultancy Cognitio, who also serves as publisher of ThreatBrief.com, says more needs to be done to safeguard the aircraft from cyber threats.
“The regulations are not keeping pace with this fast enough,” he warns, adding that cyberattacks could be more dire at 34,000 feet.
Not everyone agrees with Gourley. Southwest Airlines’ Will Ware points out that the AC120-76D guidance for EFBs does include security guidelines.
“ARINC has standards that define the domains in the aircraft. If someone hacked the Wi-Fi, they could not gain access to the aircraft control domain,” Ware says.
Gourley gave a hypothetical example, noting that malicious code getting into a pilot’s EFB could disable the system or manipulate some data. “The good news is we still have the pilot’s judgment. So, because of that judgment, I am sure safety-of-flight will not be an issue.”
The emergence of industry groups like the Aviation Information Sharing and Analysis Center (A-ISAC), which offers cybersecurity best practices for safeguarding aviation networks, is another promising development. Gourley says the work of A-ISAC, which counts as members most airplane manufacturers, major carriers and third-party avionics providers, has done more to safeguard airline cabins and cockpits “than any government regulation I’ve seen.”
“The number thing I would like to see is for every leader in the aviation community to study the cyber threat because studying the threat can motivate you to go the extra distance in engineering better systems. If you study the threat in a very fact-based way, it will compel you to do the right thing,” he concludes. AVS