Data Analytics Driving Efficiency in Commercial Aviation

Some commercial operators are seeing substantial returns on investment with new platforms for analyzing data.

Throughout 2017, data analytics platforms appeared among many aerospace companies’ major announcements and quarterly earnings calls, and air shows and other industry events. There’s a reason why data analytics have become such an evolved concept and staple for major aviation operators, including airlines, military divisions and helicopter engine makers. Easy access to aircraft performance data via web-based dashboards, spreadsheets and applications provided by data analytics enabled by the internet of things (IOT) will continue to expand.

Commercial airlines provide the best example of how data analytics are driving improved efficiency through better on-time arrivals, reduced delays and new maintenance techniques.

Qantas Airways is one international carrier using data analytics as such through a platform for pilots. The new technology, called “FlightPulse,” provides automated updates on ways that pilots can fly better to reduce fuel burn and emissions.

John Mansfield, VP and chief digital officer for GE Aviation, said Qantas and GE rolled out FlightPulse to more than 1,700 pilots in August 2017.

“After manpower, fuel (even with the current low prices) is still the largest expenditure for any airline,” he said. “Qantas realized a 1% reduction in fuel spend as a result of the work done with GE in 2016 and is on track to double fuel savings for 2017.”

The technology is designed to provide vivid imagery that is easy to interpret so pilots can quickly access actionable information. Pilots can see and review snapshots of their performance at takeoff, cruise, landing, descent and ascent at different times to see where they could be saving fuel. They’re also able to see the performance of other pilots.

“Together, we took more than 10 billion data points and fed them into an application built on Predix that could identify fuel efficiency gains and offer valuable operational insights,” said Mansfield. Predix is the asset modeling, big data processing, analytics and applications platform that GE thinks could be an IT foundation for even more advanced analytics programs for aviation.

FlightPulse provides easy-to-interpret, vivid imagery for pilots to quickly access actionable information.Photo courtesy of Qantas

No onboard aircraft modification is required to start using Predix, according to Mansfield. Operators integrate Predix into their operations as more of a set of simple application programmable interfaces (API) that can connect to their existing data sharing systems and processes, as well as those for distribution and acquisition.

Elsewhere, experts have observed among airlines a trend that focuses on the fact that it’s not really the aircraft modifications that lead to a major change in efficiency.

A 2017 case study by enterprise software provider IFS, for example, showed how China Airlines’ adoption of its Maintenix fleet-planning platform to improve data collaboration and sharing across its maintenance department and services led to a 10% increase in line management process efficiencies. This resulted in an annual cost savings of $560,000. The airline also achieved an average reduction of 30 days layover in scheduled aircraft maintenance, resulting in a savings of $1.3 million.

“It’s really your internal business processes that need to change, not so much the aircraft mods,” said Mark Martin, director of operator edition product line for the Aviation & Defense Business Unit at IFS.

OEM-Operator Data Science

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg held firm to his view that the airplane services market will be valued at more than $2.6 trillion over the next 10 years. The majority of those airplane services that are performed in that time will be due to decisions about part failures, replacements, upgrades and software updating provided by data analytics software.

At the 2017 Paris Air Show, Boeing unveiled a new division completely devoted to providing airplane data analytics expertise for Boeing aircraft operators. That divsion, “AnalytX,” in 2017 alone already saw 200 new sales of advanced data and collection processing, fleet performance and reliability analytics and maintenance and engineering optimization to new operators.

What’s happening today with data analytics is not much different than what’s occurred in the past. Operators do not need to equip with much more data acquisition technology than what is standard on today’s in-service airplanes.

As an example, Boeing’s 737 MAX, which entered commercial service in 2017, features an onboard network system (ONS) capable of digitally storing entries about irregularities associated with aircraft components and systems. Previously, doing so required a paper logbook.

Qantas Airways and GE rolled out FlightPulse to more than 1,700 pilots in August 2017.Photo courtesy of Qantas

Uptake Director of Aviation Wilie Cecil said the capabilities of data analytics platforms are evolving from what he calls “EDGE 2.5” to “EDGE 4.0.”

“The most recent EDGE analytics advances are based on existing avionics,” he explained. “What I term ‘EDGE 2.5’ uses the same aircraft condition monitoring systems (ACMS) that are used today, but using them to a greater degree than before — by using software updates on those existing ACMS systems.

Cecil explained EDGE 2.5 includes Boeing’s airplane health management system and Airbus’ real-time health monitoring system. EDGE 3.0, he said, “is the idea of performing EDGE analytics on an onboard server platform other than the traditional ACMS data management box.”

Cecil is using his previous experience providing flight data acquisition technology to help Uptake introduce new predictive data analytics designed to improve flight operational efficiency.

“On new and future aircraft models, you may notice there are onboard server platforms that can be utilized for a multitude of different applications. EDGE 3.0 is EDGE analytics conducted on those platforms. Old embedded ACMS systems (EDGE 1.0) outputs and field programmable ACMS (EDGE 2.0 and 2.5) outputs are limited to sending small amounts of event data off board via ACARS and to sending higher time series data volumes to a [quick access recorder] for post flight collection. Server-based ACMS (EDGE 3.0 and EDGE 4.0) are effectively standard IT solutions and can therefore send data via IP links in a multitude of ways including broadband in flight in real time or store and forward post flight,” he added.

Original equipment manufactures, such as Pratt & Whitney, are increasingly embracing the IOT concept by taking advantage of cloud computing and customized advanced analytics applications.

Pratt & Whitney has expanded the number of reports received off aircraft with geared turbofan engines.Photo courtesy of Pratt & Whitney

Lynn Fraga, manager of business analytics and engine services at Pratt & Whitney, said the company is expanding its advanced diagnostics and engine management (ADEM) system, a suite of algorithms and web tools that customers can access via its customer portal.

“Operators have options. They can receive very simple reports to review on their own, or they can have Pratt & Whitney monitor their fleets,” said Fraga. “With the geared turbofan engine, we have expanded the number of reports that we get off the aircraft by about three times as much as what’s traditionally been possible.”

The GTF, which features more than 5,000 sensors capable of producing up to 10 GB of data per flight, sends performance snapshots from engine start to engine shut down.

“We’re also expanding the use of sensors, giving us insight into other systems on the engine,” added Fraga. “Today’s geared turbofan will track temperatures, pressures, multiple types of low-end and high-end rotor speeds and vibration across the full-flight profile. As we look at getting more sensor data, we can look at other systems and components that are non-traditional gas path systems.”

Continued expansion in the improvements in flight efficiencies provided by data analytics will depend on how well the two worlds of data science and airplane operation and engineering can continue to merge. AVS

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