Analysis

Avionics Advances

The avionics sector is continually advancing with new navigation, communication and satellite systems entering the market. By 2020 the industry plans to unlock the skies, tackling congestion and implementing innovation. Hannah Davies investigates.

Avionics and innovation go hand in hand, with new solutions regularly being developed to help better serve the industry. The presence of ageing fleets, which aren't equipped for the pace of change that the market experiences today, also encourages advances in avionics.

These solutions include retrofits, upgrades and new technologies in a bid to create a more efficient and connected airspace. Airlines want systems that help reduce congestion, increase pilots' situational awareness, and improve navigation and communication (nav/comm), allowing them to run the smoothest of operations.

Avionics manufacturer Rockwell Collins, for example, invests $1bn a year in innovation research and development, which equates to approximately 20 per cent of its revenue, according to Thierry Tosi, VP and GM, service solutions at the company. This confirms that a huge amount is invested in improving air-to-ground communication, as well as planning for future solutions.

With the development of the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) NextGen air transportation system, and Eurocontrol's SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research programme) in progress - set for completion this decade - the industry is adopting smarter satellite-based and digital technologies, and new procedures. According to the FAA, the industry can expect "an evolution from a ground-based system of air traffic control to a satellite-based system of air traffic management". It is hoped that these advances will provide for more efficient, predictable and environmentally friendly travel.


Connecting air to ground

"Aircraft are becoming more connected with each model that enters the market," says Andy Hubbard, managing director EMEA at ARINC, and the avionics systems that are now available help optimise the service of an aircraft, maximising utilisation.

Nav/comm solutions are fundamental to operating a safe, efficient and cost-effective network, offering various benefits such as diversion prevention, fleet management, weather radars, runway awareness and ground voice communications, all of which are fundamental to the industry's aim to have an entirely connected airspace by 2020.

ARINC says it delivers more than 23 million Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) messages a month, for over 150 airlines and 10,000 aircraft. This allows pilots to use real-time information exchanges, reports and displays, increasing operational safety and efficiency.

ACARS/data link connects systems such as the Flight Management System (FMS) and Central Management Systems (CMS) and transmits messages that report any mechanical problems directly to the ground, prompting the necessary response and reducing aircraft-on-ground (AOG) situations.

Together with Inmarsat and Iridium Satellite Communication, ARINC provides a "mesh network" of Very High Frequency (VHF) ground stations, as well as a High Frequency (HF) data link to give "complete global coverage", says Hubbard; it is this mesh network that allows automatic messages to be conveyed from aircraft to ground level.

The data link and data management of features such as VHF data link, HF data link, satellite communication and Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) "Out" all allow for aircraft to get information from other aircraft. "These added data link features allow for digital communication," says Tosi, meaning "more predictability and more efficiency".

Having complete situational awareness of where an aircraft is - updated and live via data link - gives an airline the full spectrum of knowledge on "what is going on in their operations", says Hubbard. "We are seeing numerous low cost carriers around the world using data link," he adds, highlighting that ARINC's global data link, 'GLOBALink', is "not only for the flag carriers". Some examples of low cost carriers that have embraced ARINC are easyJet, which uses the communication solution across its entire fleet, and Southwest Airlines.

"Data link is now a part of the basic aircraft package," says Hubbard. "All the avionics that are widespread give the airlines the ability to modify the message set from how they use it. Whereas, 15 years ago you would have to go back to the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to do so; meaning that the ability to bring in new applications cost-effectively is a lot easier now."

According to Hubbard, the "clear, crisp and timely" ATC messaging that can be transmitted across the Atlantic proves that the sector is moving in the right direction, as is "the mandate within Eurocontrol to improve capacity in the congested [European] airspace".

As part of the implementation of NextGen in the US, the FAA is developing ADS-B, and by January 1, 2020, aircraft flying in designated airspace must be equipped to broadcast their position to the ADS-B network. ADS-B is set to replace the current radar surveillance system and provide air traffic control (ATC) with real-time data on an aircraft's position.

In addition to improved nav/comm solutions, the sector is achieving "more graphical representation in the air", according to Hubbard, following the advent of the electronic flight bag (EFB). Hubbard also envisions that a number of graphic solutions will pass over to commercial from the business jet sector, as well as the use of EFBs and solutions for aircraft-to-aircraft messaging. The iPad-compatible EFB replaces the old fashioned flight bag and has already helped American Airlines achieve savings of a minimum of 400,000 gallons and $1.2m of fuel annually, based on current fuel prices.

As avionics advance, customers try to keep up with the trends and select the best suites and systems possible. Airbus' most recent aircraft, the A350 XWB, has adopted Rockwell Collins' integrated communication global work package, which consolidates five separate packages into one. The package, which offers greater efficiency, features "next-generation VHF and HF systems with improved size, weight and power", according to the OEM.


Retrofits, upgrades and integration

Indeed, a huge concern for operators is taking equipment off an aircraft after a short period of time for an upgrade, as is investing in next-generation equipment ahead of 2020 due to the uncertainties in today's market, not to mention the extreme costs. While there is some doubt about what equipment will be sufficient at the turn of the decade, avionics providers must prepare as best as possible to ensure that any nav/comm systems that they do adopt meet future industry standards. Thales, for instance, showcased its latest vision for the future of avionics at the Paris Air Show this year, with its concept 'Avionics 2020'; estimating that its streamlined-screen interface will become standard by 2020.

A better approach in terms of retrofits and upgrades is needed in the industry as it reduces the need for a system to be removed. It is quickly becoming a trend for new platforms to be upgradable and for OEMs to develop their solutions with future expansion in mind. Rockwell Collins' retrofit 757/767 Large Format Display (LFD) allows for 18 Line Replaceable Units (LRUs) to be removed, reducing overall weight by 150lbs and improving maintenance costs.

Integration is also something that is becoming more common - reducing weight, maintenance times and cost. "The high level of integration of equipment today is beneficial to the weight of an aircraft," comments Tosi; Rockwell Collins' integrated surveillance system, the 'ISS-2100', is an example of a solution that incorporates four federated surveillance products into one. Combining its Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), Mode S transponder, Terrain Awareness and Warning System (TAWS) and weather radar into a singular system makes way for enhanced functionality and reduced weight. The box also allows for future innovation with additional space, preventing the need for replacement when an upgrade is required. This supports Tosi's opinion that Rockwell Collins is "becoming more efficient" and its "solutions more flexible".

Most of the latest generation aircraft such as the 787 and A350 come equipped with Rockwell Collins' systems as standard, of which the content can vary from cockpit, nav/comm and surveillance systems, according to Tosi. "The trend is to have aircraft fully furnished by the OEM," he adds. Although, he says that on narrowbodies such as the A320 and 737 you still see "some equipment at the choice of the airlines, usually communication/navigation systems".

For example, Rockwell Collins' 'GLU-925' comes as standard equipment on A380 and 747-8 aircraft, as well as being certified on most other Airbus and Boeing models. This also makes it a reliable choice for retrofits that bring next-generation navigation capabilities to existing aircraft.

To help monitor its offerings, Rockwell Collins has a system called 'RECAP' (Reliability Evaluation and Corrective Action Programme) which allows the company to track the performance of a product and retrieve data directly from its maintenance centres and customers. It then evaluates "the performance and proposes upgrades to improve the reliability where necessary", and monitors "the products and any challenges to make sure that they are performing in the market", according to Tosi. ARINC also offers technical support to customers, giving airlines access to its technical experts.

While avionics advances such as the EFB and ADS-B continue to benefit the industry, there are some big questions that loom, especially ahead of the changes scheduled to take effect by 2020. A big uncertainty for airlines is future functional capabilities, such as what level of consistency they need for the GPS and whether multiple frequencies coming online will be a problem for receivers, as well as Mode S signal integrity in high density flight zones. In addition, an airline's maintenance cycles and limited opportunity to implement new equipment are factors to consider as the industry moves forward.


Future innovation

Commenting on how the avionics sector may improve in the future, Hubbard says that "greater availability, a continually expanding network, lower cost satellite based avionics solutions and aircraft having more than one medium - so that they are always connected," are all things that will further develop the sector. He also sees smaller aircraft that usually only have VHF, having more than one connectivity path, adding that "aircraft are becoming server farms on the network rather than simply being connected some of the time". 

Discussing challenges that the industry has witnessed, Hubbard comments that "one of the biggest hold ups hasn't been the avionics, but instead finding a cost-effective high-speed IP link to the cockpit". He explains that Inmarsat is currently working on its GX satellite solution, expected to launch in a few years' time, describing it as "quite a big step in terms of pure IP capacity". As a result, there will be "high-speed bandwidth in the air" and improved Wi-Fi, providing as good a connection in the air as on the ground. But he notes that the technology is unlikely to reach Europe due to restrictions with single width frequency operators.

Tosi, meanwhile, expects an increase in data exchange around the implementation of NextGen in US and SESAR in Europe, allowing for more information to be transferred between AOG and other aircraft. As a result, the industry will benefit from reduced congestion, with aircraft navigating more efficiently than today.

Indeed, change and innovation seem to be the main focus in the avionics sphere this decade - and with so much set to happen it will be interesting to see exactly how much the sector manages to achieve come 2020.

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