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Alternative Data Transmission Means For Airlines

Connecting aircraft in flight with the ground in a truly robust fashion enables massive amounts of data to reach the ground in time to improve operations and assist timely maintenance decisions; for instance, by pre-positioning skilled mechanics, materials and tools at the gate before landing.

Everybody has been talking about it for years, and now it is finally starting to happen. It, here, means connecting aircraft in flight with the ground in a truly robust fashion, enabling the massive amounts of data modern aircraft can generate to reach the ground in time to improve operations and assist timely maintenance decisions; for instance, by pre-positioning skilled mechanics, materials and tools at the gate before landing.

Technologies certainly exist to accomplish this, but the key has always been doing it economically for costs justified by the payoffs. Satellites and Internet Protocol (IP) communication now offer more affordable communication links. And if exchange of operational data can be combined with data for passengers in the cabin, further efficiencies may result. But this is a young field, and there are several approaches to achieving better connections.

For example, WxOps will provide Hawaiian Airlines with software to massively increase the operational data it transmits and receives from its en route aircraft. Data sent every few minutes will include position reporting, telemetry, aircraft-reported meteorological data, fuel status, aircraft systems data and much more.

WxOps’ software operates on tablets mounted in the cockpit, connected to an aircraft server and IP satellite transceiver. The always-on transceiver communicates with Inmarsat satellites worldwide.

WxOps COO Albert Peterlin stresses that airline operations will be enhanced by more timely and accurate communication with the aircraft. “This new process gives the airline the ability to modify flight paths and reduce costs after departure due to changing traffic control, weather hazards, fuel conservation and on-time performance.”

A massive amount of data will be transmitted, including maintenance-related data such as minimum equipment lists, systems diagnostics and alerts. Hawaiian will use the data for real-time operational and maintenance control and many other purposes.

After launching the software with Hawaiian, WxOPs plans to offer it to other carriers. Hawaiian flies Boeing 717s, 767s and Airbus A330s, but WxOPs can report whatever data is generated by more modern models.

Peterlin says always-on IP and excellent data compression will deliver more timely data than traditional systems like ACARS, and the WxOPs approach will integrate the data more thoroughly with the airline departments that use it, including operations and maintenance.

Installation of the system takes one to two weeks, and requires the airline to have aircraft and ground control servers, satellite and cellular connectors and ARINC 429/717 connectors.

Pressure for solutions like WxOps is coming from new aircraft models and new data demands. Today, operational and maintenance data can be been transmitted over GLOBALink through the many media that support ACARS. But the amount of data transmitted over ACARS is in tens of thousands of kilobits, notes Peter Grogan, senior director of GLOBALink Data Services for Rockwell Collins. Maintenance data—in kilobytes to megabytes—is generally transmitted at the gate.

Moreover, next-generation aircraft can be configured with data requirements that strain ACARS capabilities. Grogan says new solutions will be necessary, and harmonizing them will be an industry challenge. Fortunately, Boeing 787s, Airbus A380s and Airbus A350s can easily use broadband IP to transmit some data.

SITA is taking a more integrated approach to the challenge. It has formed a SITA OnAir business unit to combine SITA’s expertise in crew, operational, air traffic and maintenance connections with OnAir tools for connecting passengers in the cabin to entertainment and communications.

Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer Francois Rodriguez says connectivity is due to boom for two reasons. First, new aircraft like the 787 and A350 are generating huge amounts of operating data. “It’s critical to get the data off en route,” Rodriguez says. He believes ACARS is too expensive to transmit so much data en route, and downloading data at gates is too late for timely decisions.

Second, airlines are seeking Wi-Fi and Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) connections for passenger entertainment and phone usage. Satellite communication links to serve these needs open up “more pipes” for cockpit data, Rodriguez notes. A combined solution to both cockpit and cabin needs will be more efficient and pose fewer implementation challenges for airlines. “We are putting together an ecosystem for the airborne aircraft and ground operations.”

SITA will use IP and other communication links to update weather, provide flight tracking, support EFBs, report defects and other critical operational data, while OnAir links passengers to the ground. Solutions will be scalable and fit any aircraft. Separate “vertical solutions make airline life very difficult,” Rodriguez argues. “You end up with different hardware, systems, spares and training.” He says the combined system can be installed in 24 hours. 

This article first appeared in the March 16, 2015 MRO Edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

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