Improving In-Flight Communications

The futuristic credentials of predictive maintenance are often described by the ability of aircraft health monitoring systems to update ground teams of faults before a flight has even touched down.

The futuristic credentials of predictive maintenance are often described by the ability of aircraft health monitoring systems to update ground teams of faults before a flight has even touched down.

In reality, though, only a tiny fraction of sensor data is relayed this way, as only the most important alerts have access to an aircraft’s limited communications bandwidth. The rest is downloaded when the aircraft is plugged in at its gate.

Addressing this imbalance is a priority for engine manufacturers, and GE Aviation has now teamed up with wireless technology specialist Teledyne Controls to boost the capability of the aircraft communication and recording system (ACARS).

Exploiting the higher bandwidth of cellular wireless networks, GE and Teledyne hope to boost in-flight engine data transmissions from a few hundred bytes to several megabytes.  

"Applying physics and data science expertise together, on continuous data, is the recipe to create analytics that enable increased detection lead time, reduce maintenance burden and improve asset availability,” says John Nelson, data product manager for GE Aviation.

Despite Nelson’s predictions, the upgrade – announced at a GE technology event this week – won’t make a dent in the roughly 1TB of data that the new-generation engines generate each cycle.

Even so, it’s not a meaningless drop in the ocean, as engineers can only react a small portion of data can quickly enough to justify it being sent in real time.

GE’s uses an in-house-developed platform called Predix to perform its engine data analytics, which fall roughly into two streams: noting trends over time; and spotting exceedances – a spiked reading from a vibration sensor, for instance. It’s the latter that in-flight communications are useful for.

Teledyne’s data link technology is already installed on half of Boeing and 70% of Airbus aircraft, though improvements to real-time communications will require upgrades to both ground- and fleet-based infrastructure.

To find out more about predictive maintenance technology, check out a special feature on the topic in Engine Yearbook 2017.

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