Within the commercial aviation industry, the electronic flight bag (EFB) is slowly but surely moving towards that point which globally successful modern technological devices eventually get to: a tipping point for uptake. As with mobile phones and CDs, the technology was there for decades before everyone unanimously decided they must have it. Necessary factors gradually converge and suddenly… the technology is ubiquitous.
Although EFBs are not there yet, current trends point to that day arriving in the none-too-distant future. Replacing the original backbreaking flight bag, loaded with around 12,000 sheets of paper comprising maps, charts, and documents and weighing 25kg, today’s EFBs greatly surpass their cumbersome predecessors in capability and functionality, as well as portability.
Modern EFBs can dramatically streamline operations and save airlines a fortune. They replace countless tons of paper, meaning much less weight on board and millions saved in fuel costs, as well as reducing impact on the environment. Along with increased operational efficiency and productivity, departments such as flight operations and maintenance can also be modernised.
Potential benefits range from the elimination of low-value, labour intensive processes like updating manuals and navigation charts, through to improving the availability of time-sensitive and operationally important information such as defect reports. Safety is improved, information is available faster, and it can be simultaneously accessed and shared by more people to ensure optimal performance. It’s no wonder they’re catching on. The paperless cockpit is without doubt the future of flying across the aviation industry — private, military and commercial. The question is, which devices and what software will most airline companies be using?
Enter the newcomer in the industry — the iPad. Apple’s globally popular gadget has been grabbing the headlines, passing decompression tests, and being submitted for use as a Class 1 EFB by the world’s largest airline, United Continental. More than 10,000 iPads have been deployed to United and Continental aircraft at a cost of nearly $5m, with estimated annual savings of around $1m. This major network airline follows Delta and Alaska Airlines, which were the first commercial airlines to use iPads. American Airlines is also using iPads, and was recently granted US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorisation to use the devices during all phases of commercial flight and to mount the iPad in the cockpit — an unprecedented ruling which qualifies it as a Class 2 EFB, rather than a Class 1 that must be stowed on take off and landing.
As the iPad is being widely considered by more and more airlines as a potential option over the more established EFB devices, some contention has arisen in the industry surrounding the iPad’s suitability, functionality and future. At the core of the debate is the overlap in the categorisation of EFB devices as Class 1, 2 and 3.
Class 1 represents the most basic device and embodies the initial concept of replacing paper with a device to access and view documents. These are generally purchased, consumer off-the-shelf (COTS) devices such as laptops, which are portable and not connected to an aircraft’s power supply. Class 2 EFBs are still portable but can be docked and used with the flight deck and are approved for operation in all phases of flight. The software functionality goes beyond Class 1 and includes moving maps, real-time satellite and weather updates. The top range Class 3 EFBs are a fixed part of the avionic on-board system and are the only class able to run the most sophisticated Type C software. They must also be certified (at considerable cost) by the FAA via Supplemental Type Certificate (STC).
Established companies such as Goodrich acknowledge the impact of iPads but believe their use to be limited. Jim Schmitz, director of business development for Goodrich’s cockpit data management products, states: “The iPad and other tablets certainly have a role to play in many instances where limited functionality, along with low cost of entry, is concerned. Tablet devices have helped to accelerate airline interest in EFBs and they may help to lower the cost of entry to implement a basic, limited functionality, Class 1 EFB system.”
But, he warns: “If airlines want to tap into the much greater savings potential of a ‘fully connected’ EFB system, they will need to move beyond a tablet-based EFB. We have already seen this in Europe with airlines that have used Class 1 EFBs for years and have already taken the step, or are considering upgrading their Class 1 tablet to a Class 2 or Class 3 EFB system.”
Upgrading from Class 1 with products like Goodrich’s ‘SmartDisplay’ EFB system, means greater depth in the overall performance of an EFB. As Schmitz says: “These highly customisable product suites allow flight crews, flight ops, maintenance departments and IT staff to efficiently manage the flow of multiple sources of electronic information to and from the aircraft, effectively enabling the aircraft to become an extension of an airline’s IT system.”
Knut Aabö, EVP of sales and marketing at EFB hardware provider navAero, concurs with Schmitz and explains the limitations of the iPad in contrast to established EFB solutions and hardware, such as navAero’s own ‘t-Bag C22’ EFB device.
“While the iPad is attracting significant attention in the North American market as a low cost technology tool, there is virtually no interest in this device in Europe, the Middle East or Asia,” he says. “These markets are focused on the deployment of purpose-built EFB technology because they see the benefit they will gain from EFB systems that can be fully integrated with the aircraft. The iPad will not undercut the Class 2 EFB hardware market. The iPad is a basic, consumer product with limited built-in connectivity and content upload capability. It was never designed to be used in an aircraft environment and is not manufactured with aircraft-grade components. It is a consumer device, not an aircraft device.”
Whilst the limitations are clear — the iPad is not a viable contender for the highly integrated and robust technology platforms that Class 3 EFBs represent — they are gaining support for use in both Class 1 and Class 2 categories. Jeppesen Enterprise Solutions, the aviation navigation company and Boeing subsidiary, has been supplying EFB solutions and working with multiple hardware providers for more than 15 years. Senior manager Jeff Buhl has plenty of positive things to say about the adoption of the iPad in the aviation industry. “To date, the iPad has been the most successful EFB platform with solutions provided by Jeppesen. It is certainly part of what is re-defining the EFB solution. 2011 was a great year for the iPad EFB and we see no signs of it slowing down, especially among the commercial airlines. For many situations, it is the right platform with the right solution when integrated with Jeppesen ‘Mobile FliteDeck’ software, which was developed by pilots, for pilots.”
The iPad has also drawn supportive comments from Ultramain Systems. Based in New Mexico, US, Ultramain has been producing integrated maintenance and logistics software for more than 20 years. “If regulators will allow data connectivity between the iPad and aircraft systems then it will no doubt compete with Class 2 EFBs as well,” says company president Mark McCausland. “The iPad has already passed FAA hardware certification requirements and been approved for use in the cockpit in critical phases of flight, so it’s shown itself to be up to aircraft-grade certification standards.”
With regard to the apparent convergence between the classes, he adds: “For safety reasons there will always be some applications that won’t be permitted on anything less than Class 3 EFB. The reason is that due to the critical nature of the applications, certified software and hardware will be required. Class 3 EFBs will always be in a class by themselves. However, Class 1 and 2 EFBs appear to be merging.”
This blurring between class categorisation continues to split major players in the industry. Diogo Serradas, of Flightman, (formerly Aircraft Management Technologies), which specialises in connected aircraft solutions and claims to have the world’s largest market share in EFB software provision, also recognises the significant encroachment of the iPad into the aviation industry. Serradas also suggests that there is more competition beyond the iPad in the form of other new EFB devices.
“This new FAA charting legislation is a significant milestone within the EFB industry,” he says. “If these airlines successfully deploy a complete EFB solution on the iPad, then it’s quite possible that 2012 could become a significant year. At the moment the iPad is a competitor to other EFB hardware suppliers. However, with the advent of 'Windows 8' later this year there will be a large number of new devices capable of running existing enterprise applications. We predict more airlines combining both pilot-assigned tablets with the more established aircraft-assigned EFBs.”
New features and new problems
With more than 20,000 non EFB-equipped aircraft in use, there is everything to play for and EFBs will continue to proliferate across the varying levels of capability. The technology and application of EFBs has already far surpassed the original idea of substituting paper for a screen. The EFB is now a functioning supplementary IT system working in sync with on-board computing. They can complement primary flight instrumentation as an integral part of an aircraft’s functioning.
navAero’s Aabö sees this as good news for increased airline efficiency. “As regulatory authorities gain greater assurances as to EFB reliability and user benefits, we see the potential for numerous ancillary uses that today are authorised only on computer systems that utilise a 'DO-178' operating system,” he states. “This ability to allow Class 2 technology systems to make the tremendous leap to being a true contributor for increasing operational efficiency goes way beyond simply displaying the digital version of paper documentation that was contained in the traditional leather flight bag.”
The future will see more software apps developed, while hardware providers will battle it out for which device is the best delivery mechanism. One possible drawback that could affect some EFB users is inundation with new applications — could pilots risk becoming hindered with too many options, potentially losing valuable time whilst scrolling through pages and pages of apps? With the almost limitless variations of service that EFBs can be enabled to perform and provide they have become an altogether different beast — but is it one that needs to be tamed? Or at least controlled so that it doesn’t become a burden?
“The challenge is finding the balance between too many apps and too many features in a single app,” believes Jeppesen’s Buhl. “Mobile devices are teaching us that targeted applications with a defined purpose can be easier to learn, train, and use more effectively on a recurring basis. Ultimately, a relatively limited set of applications can cover the tool set a pilot needs to replace and far exceed the notion of the traditional flight bag.”
Pilots have also joined the debate, expressing concerns about the increased and expansive EFB deployment. Popular pilot forums are full of opinions on the subject, and when it comes to the iPad as a new EFB, the overwhelming consensus appears to be positive. Some have noted its usefulness for flight planning purposes, or in quickly improving a pilot’s situation awareness (SA) — using the iPad’s touchscreen can be considerably quicker than finding, unfolding, searching and planning on paper charts.
Regardless of the stance taken on iPads versus purpose-built EFB hardware, it is safe to say that the iPad has found a place in the cockpit as well as in business lounges and as part of in-flight entertainment (IFE) services. This is more likely a result of the tablet being "pulled" into the sector rather then Apple "pushing" it there. Apple doesn’t need to penetrate the commercial airline marketplace — the company most likely sells more iPads in one week than the number required to equip every commercial aircraft flying today.
The issues that could prove a barrier to further iPad adoption include: the lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery (historically ruled a potential fire hazard by the FAA); aircraft data connectivity; future upgradeability/expansion of system capabilities; and, in the US, issues surrounding NextGen compliance. (NextGen being the ongoing transformation of the US National Airspace System — an evolution from a ground-based system of air traffic control (ATC) to a satellite-based system of air traffic management (ATM)). Essentially, Type C EFB applications like Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), Cockpit Display of Traffic Information (CDTI) or Controller-Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) will have to be to be carried out with a Class 3 device to be NextGen compliant.
Whether it’s a relatively cheap $499 iPad acting as a Class 1 or 2 EFB, or a fully integrated Class 3 supplemental operating platform, what is clear is that the near future will see the complete evolution of the unwieldy old flight bag into an EFB on every aircraft. At the top end of the spectrum they will comprise a real-time, air-to-ground linked system. As Ultramain’s McCausland asserts: “To obtain optimal performance, EFBs need to be connected to ground systems via airborne data connectivity. This is not to say benefits can’t be gained with Class 1 EFB because they certainly can, but airborne data connectivity elevates the level of obtainable benefits. It’s just a matter of time before commercial aviation shifts to EFB use. It’s too powerful not to.”
The future of EFBs and their increasing functionality remains dependent upon the continued expansion of connectivity to the aircraft. As each subsequent generation of EFB hits the market, the need to be constantly connected increases, and eventually aircraft will become another node within the IT operations of an aviation network. Data will move up and down between the aircraft and the on-ground maintenance, gate personnel and flight operations departments, all with real-time connectivity of the EFB to the airline’s IT system. It will ultimately be the operational efficiency and multi-faceted services that will define emerging EFB hardware and software, as their increasingly vital role in aviation continues to evolve.