Avionics Digital Edition

How New Data Acquisition Tech is Tackling the Information Mountain

Aircraft data acquisition technology continues to evolve with more modularity, increased processing power and real time air-to-ground transfer capabilities alongside increasing proliferation of engine, aircraft system and airframe component sensors.

Airbus and Boeing’s re-engined workhorse aircraft, the A320 neo and 737 MAX, will enter service in 2016 and 2017, respectively, with standard data acquisition architectures that can provide unprecedented collection and transmission of data from sensors and data buses all throughout the aircraft. At the same time, flight data acquisition technology hardware and software suppliers, manufacturers, and systems integrators are expanding the capabilities of their existing data acquisition technologies with a focus on improving the operators’ ability to move data off of aircraft in a timely and cost-efficient way. These improvements aim to enable Aircraft Health Monitoring (AHM) and predictive maintenance with new technology that can be retrofitted to legacy aircraft. The Avionics Magazine 2016 Data Acquisition reader survey found that the two leading reasons operators consider upgrading their aircraft’s data acquisition technology today is to comply with new civil aviation regulations and to increase their ability to perform real-time monitoring of flight data. Here, we feature perspectives from leading industry data acquisition technology providers on what’s available today, and where the industry is headed.

Flight Testing

When conducting modern flight-test campaigns, engineers must capture an increasing number of measurements. Technicians must gather more data than ever with operating equipment that tests hardware and technologies and applications provided by different vendors. One way that flight test engineers are looking to address these needs is by moving the data acquisition hardware closer to the sensors that collect the streams of data that they acquire, store and transmit into meaningful and actionable information post-flight. This requires technicians to mount a data acquisition chassis in locations that are small and subject to harsh in-flight conditions. To address the challenges of providing hundreds of channels of measurement capability, Curtiss-Wright recently introduced its Axon Data Acquisition Unit (DAU), with a high-speed serial backplane enabling up to 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) dedicated link per module. Compared to the manufacturer’s current generation KAM 500 DAU, the Axon is 55 percent smaller than the cross section of the KAM 500 chassis, features dual-Gigabit Ethernet outputs and allows engineers to place their data acquisition system closer to their sensors by allowing multiple singular or segmented chassis or remote node-style configurations.

“We designed Axon to be modular, allowing engineers to fit anywhere from two to16 modules in a chassis. You can remove one of the data acquisition modules that fit inside the chassis wrap them in one, which we call an Axonite, and place them in a location away from the chassis. By doing that you create a mini-data-acquisition system, which is less than 8 cubic inches in size, and you can place them up to 20 meters away from the chassis itself. The module that you slot into the Axonite is the same module you put in the chassis itself, so if you have a stock of modules, you can use them in any configuration,” says Dave Buckley, chief architect of engineering at Curtiss-Wright.

The data acquisition manufacturer also continues to see demand for its traditional flight data recording technology. Curtiss-Wright supplies the Isskor data recorder system, an integrated flight data acquisition monitoring, processing and recording solution with an integrated cockpit control unit and camera. The company also supplies an integrated flight-data acquisition unit designed to provide Irkut Corp.’s MC-21 aircraft with data acquisition capability over the life of that airframe.

“In the flight test world, we continue to see a trend for more and more data to be acquired. The amount of data that was acquired in the past purely to meet certification is now being added to a lot of data that is gathered through design organizations to test their own simulation of the aircraft. The designers of the aircraft like to get a lot of information back from the flight test campaign so they can validate their own models and understandings of exactly how the aircraft flies and see that it flies as expected. With the amount of data being captured today, engineers are putting 100s of megabits per second through their data acquisition systems, whereas that may not have been the case five to 10 years ago. That’s why we designed the Axon with a high-speed backplane where modules have a 1-gigabit link to the controllers, so the data acquisition chassis can gather all of the data needs that are required today, and as the trending upward of data acquisition continues into the gigabit domain,” said Buckley.

Irkut Corp.’s Public Unveiling of the MC-21-300, which features Curtiss Wright’s data acquisition technology.Photo courtesy of Irkut Corp.

Expanding Capabilities

Only 25 percent of respondents to the 2016 Avionics Magazine aircraft data acquisition survey stated that they have needs to acquire new data acquisition management equipment. This is an indication that existing in-service data acquisition equipment is meeting the needs of operators within the commercial space. Mexican low-cost carrier Viva Aerobus fits within this realm, as the airline selected Teledyne’s Flight Data Interface Management Unit (FDIMU) for a fleet of 52 Airbus A320s in 2015. Viva Aerobus is also equipping its aircraft with Teledyne’s Wireless Ground Link Communications (WGL Comm+), which takes data directly from the FDIMU and sends it automatically via 3G to their in-house server prior to transferring the data for analysis in the Aerobytes flight data monitoring software used by the airline.

“Before we had this capability it was a nightmare getting data off the aircraft,” said Humberto Flores, operations engineering and analysis senior manager for Viva Aerobus. “We had to walk out to the airplanes with a laptop and then connect to a [Quick Access Recorder] QAR, download the data from the flight and then go to our centralized server to upload the data. After that we had to download the data, put it into a USB stick, send it to the main base and the engineer there could upload the data into the data monitoring software … Now, on the airplanes that are equipped with WGL Comm+ we have 100 percent of [Flight Operations Quality Assurance] FOQA and [Aircraft Condition Monitoring System] ACMS data collection when with the normal manual process we had around 85 percent or less. We can customize the data frame according to our needs, and with this customization we are able to measure the compliance with specific standard-operating practices, policies or ACMS limits and trends.”

While the protocols used to transfer data continue to evolve and the amount of data generated and captured increases, the data acquisition technology being added in both retrofit and forward-fit installations is still primarily doing two things: capturing and concentrating data from data buses all over the aircraft, and translating it into a single stream of data to the Flight Data Recorder (FDR), as well as for use in real-time and post-flight analysis of specific systems or components on the aircraft. William Cecil, director of business development at Teledyne Controls, says that the industry is beginning to introduce faster transmission methods used to get data from airborne aircraft to the ground in real time.

“The lion’s share of real-time analytics data and is done onboard; and the link to get that to the ground in real-time today, even on the A350 and 787, is still Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS). The change that’s coming is that there are new ways that the data can be collected,” says Cecil, noting that faster satellite communications technologies, such as Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadBand Internet Protocol (IP)-based packet switched service, are becoming more viable.

New data acquisition technologies are also preparing to enter into service with robust capabilities. The Howell Instruments H396 DAU for the Universal Avionics Insight Flight Deck is an example of new data acquisition tech that acts as the central component to the MD 900 Explorer Helicopter upgraded flight deck. According to Bill Milton, vice president of business development at Howell Instruments, the H396 has up to 124 programmable discretes, an expandable architecture, and transmission chip detection and burn off.

“The system accepts analog, digital and discrete inputs from various engine and aircraft subsystems and provides signal conditioning and conversion to an RS-422 digital format. Once converted to RS-422, this information is provided to all displays on two independent and redundant buses. We used an open architecture design so that we can customize it with minimal expense and effort. There’s very limited non-recurring engineering effort required to retrofit this to legacy aircraft. For example, if on one of the connectors they have an 80-contact connector, we will automatically install a 100 K connector or if the design calls for three PC boards, there’s room for four PC boards,” said Milton.

Elsewhere, data acquisition providers are seeing expanded use for their current generation products on legacy aircraft, while also adding new capabilities to their existing product lines based on industry demand. Flyht Aerospace’s Automated Flight Information Reporting System (AFIRS) provides functions such as safety services voice and text messaging, data collection and transmission, and on-demand streaming of flight data recorder (black box), engine and airframe data, then sends this information through the Iridium satellite network to its UpTime ground-based server that routes data to the end user. Now, Flyht Aerospace CEO Tom Schmutz said the company is looking to merge its legacy UpTime ground-based server to the cloud. “It’s our desire and our goal to migrate all of our customers from their legacy UpTime to cloud-based UpTime which offers a lot of enhancements and advantages,” says Schmutz, adding that the Canadian manufacturer expects to announce the formal launch of the cloud-based UpTime capability later this year.

Flight data acquisition system featuring an Acra KAM-500 DAU inside a GippsAERO GA10 aircraft.Photo courtesty of Curtiss-Wright.

Avionica is another company with current-generation flight data acquisition technology that is meeting industry demand, including recently aiding in the investigation of an Emirates Boeing 777 that burst into flames after a crash landing at Dubai International Airport in early August. All 300 passengers onboard survived, and the aircraft was equipped with Avionica’s miniQAR Mk III, which made all of the data recorded by the FDR available to investigators immediately. Flydubai also equipped a fleet of Boeing 737s with Avionica’s satLINK MAX, the integral Miniature Quick Access Recorder (miniQAR), the 4G avCM module for wireless communications, the gatelink terminal Wi-Fi communications system, and the aviONS on-board server platform, with an integrated cabin Wi-Fi hotspot. The Miami, Fla.-based manufacturer is expanding the capabilities of those products through partnerships with Ultramain Systems to combine the functionality of its satcom hardware with Ultramain’s Electronic Logbook (ELB) software, as well as with GigSky to extend the capabilities of their onboard hardware with mobile data services.

Bombardier’s C Series, which recently entered service with launch customer Swiss International Air Lines (Swiss), is powered by Pratt & Whitney’s Geared Turbo Fan engine, which features 5,000 sensors that can generate up to 10 gigabytes (GB) of data per second. By 2026, Oliver Wyman’s annual aviation Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) survey predicts a global in-service fleet of more than 15,000 aircraft generating upwards of 98 million terabytes of data annually. Aircraft are evolving to the point that only consumer internet use is going to generate more data annually, and the avionics industry continues to produce and expand data-acquisition tools that aim to give operators everything they need to accurately track and trend their operations, streamlining operation and maintenance to the best of their ability. AVS