Honeywell’s Connected Radar could aggregate data from various aircraft to show a more complete view of the weather. Honeywell
Honeywell’s Connected Radar could aggregate data from various aircraft to show a more complete view of the weather.

Aircraft Connectivity Has Many Benefits For MRO

Greater inflight bandwidth through satellite connectivity is bringing big changes to MRO

The newest jets generate orders of magnitude more operational and maintenance data than even their recent predecessors. They not only collect more aircraft-related data for download but can exploit more uploaded data for weather, software upgrades, critical operational advice and many passenger amenities. These new aircraft increasingly will be connected to the ground by broadband links that can move data up and down much more economically than the old radio-based systems.

But airlines alone generally cannot manage and exploit all of this data. Who will help them, and what are the implications for MRO?

One answer is the airframe OEMs, which designed the newest aircraft to be e-enabled and have long planned to help airlines exploit connectivity. Meanwhile, carriers are certainly turning to these OEMs for assistance.

For example, 95% of Boeing 787s are now covered by airplane health management services, up from 90% of 777s and 60% of 747s, which generate far less data. John Maggiore, managing director of maintenance and leasing at Boeing Digital Aviation, argues that his company is uniquely positioned to help with the transmission, storage, processing and analysis of aircraft data across the board.

Airbus offers similar assistance. Its Airman and AiRTHM services can arrange to download, store and analyze data to turn unscheduled into scheduled maintenance and reduce cancellations and delays. These services are especially attractive on the Airbus A380 and A350, which generate so much data.

But help from airframe OEMs may come with strings. John Synnott, the International Air Transport Association’s manager of flight operations information technology, outlined several concerns at a recent Dubai conference on data management for the connected aircraft. “Has data become so competitively valuable that monopolistic practices might arise?” Synnott asked. And what can airlines and OEMs do to ensure cooperation about data, rather than chronic legal conflict?

Global MRO providers are an alternative source of assistance. Air France Industries-KLM Engineering & Maintenance is already collecting data from the 787 and will apply lessons from 747s and A380s to analyze it. The MRO’s predictive tool, Prognos, uses Hadoop, a software framework especially designed to manage massive amounts of data quickly. 

Avionics OEMs as Data Managers

But aircraft connectivity offers opportunities far beyond maintenance. Prominent avionics OEMs can help manage data for multiple purposes.

Philip Herman, director of connected aircraft strategy at Honeywell, spoke to the Dubai delegates as an avionics manufacturer intensely involved in exploiting data. He outlined the many areas where data connectivity can help carriers, including branding, performance, passenger comfort, fuel use, operations, turnaround time, maintenance and safety. Major operational aims are flying aircraft “farther, fast, higher and better, and improving dispatch rates,” he notes.

Herman says Honeywell can help improve flight efficiency by managing weather data, for example, buying it from leading aircraft and selling it to following aircraft. Or the weather data revenue could be shared among providers, including airlines.

The OEM is now moving toward combining its flight-management systems with real-time weather data to recommend optimal altitudes to pilots, which Herman estimates could cut fuel use by 0.5-1%. Another tool would use detailed weather and environmental conditions by route to estimate how long engine components could operate before needing overhaul.

Honeywell’s Aviaso software helps 31 carriers boost fuel efficiency by collecting flight data such as flap deployment, auxiliary power unit (APU) use and landing gear actions by route and recommending best practices. Herman estimates the service saves a single-aisle aircraft $49,000 a year.

The trick, Herman stresses, is managing data generated by the aircraft and data generated on the ground that is sent to the aircraft and then combining all of it to improve operations.

Data analytics can take two approaches: sorting through all available data to look for significant correlations, or starting with a problem to be solved and selecting only the data thought to be necessary. The latter approach is much less expensive, but may miss unknown causal links underlying problems.

Solutions must also account for differences in aircraft. Newer jets generate more data, integrate it onboard and have modern satellite communications. Older aircraft generate less data, do not integrate it and often lack modern communication links. Cybersecurity must be considered as well. Herman says security must be tighter when pushing data up to aircraft than when downloading it. But business confidentiality means even passenger manifests sent to the ground should be protected. 

The last step in mining data riches is presenting the findings to decision-makers in terms pilots and mechanics can understand.

Much aircraft data passes through Honeywell’s central maintenance computers, and the OEM can serve as a “data broker,” Herman says, capturing and transmitting data to component OEMs based on preset triggers. Honeywell has used data from its APUs to reduce problems dramatically, sometimes by spotting problems with related components. It is considering applying the same kind of analysis to non-Honeywell components such as bleed-air systems, wheels and brakes.

Airframe OEMs have integrated data on their new aircraft, can provide nose-to-tail solutions and tend to think they own all aircraft-generated data, Herman notes. But airlines would like more competition in the MRO space, just as drivers seek independent repair shops even for highly instrumented modern cars.

Rockwell Collins supplies the core network platform for information management on the 787, hosting software from Boeing and other OEMs, notes Bradley Weyer, director of enterprise connected aircraft solutions. The avionics provider also supplies equipment for cockpit radio and satellite broadband communication. The company is offering new services from its ground-based infrastructure to host software for connection to the 787. Rockwell also has substantial information management system content on the Airbus A350. “Most data should go through our systems; we are stewards of information management,” Weyer says.

Both the 787 and A350 can do some data processing onboard, but most processing will be done on the ground, where it is much less expensive. Traditionally, health data was downloaded at gates onto floppy disks or thumb drives. Now, it is increasingly done over cell phone networks. The big change will be when much more bandwidth becomes available inflight from satellite internet connections.

Still, “satcom is not free,” Weyer notes. More inflight downloads will need intelligent systems onboard that know when it is worthwhile to send data down to support day-of-operation decisions such as having repair materials ready at gates to prevent schedule disruptions. For that, “you need smart sensors, proper communications, security and the right operational environment on the ground. We are still in the early stages; the vast majority of aircraft do not do that yet.” Major carriers’ 777s, 787s, A350s and A380s can support this vision, but older narrowbodies flown by low-cost carriers generally cannot. 

Rockwell performs analytics on its own components but, unlike Honeywell, has no plans to do so on other OEMs’ components. Weyer says the best return on investment is usually on non-avionic components, but there will still be value in understanding electronic systems better.

Data management, not data analysis, for connected aircraft is the focus of Weyer’s division at Rockwell. Data management is complex, due to all the nodes on an airline’s network and the necessity for transmission in real time, global coverage and complete security for safety. Rockwell has put together a package of services for connected aircraft that could assist even the largest airlines to exploit data on 787s and A350s. Each airline customer would access its data on its own portal, and the service would work for both Boeing and Airbus models, saving carriers the problem of working with two different data systems.

The Rockwell system also could serve as the custodian of data for upload—for example, navigation data, software configurations and weather data—setting it up for transmission at the right time.

Weyer expects airline exploitation of connectivity to explode in the future, much as consumer use of smartphones has exploded. “The pace of change will be unprecedented in our industry,” he says.

Etihad Partners

Etihad Airways Engineering is working with Etihad Airways Technology and Innovation and other strategic partners to exploit big data, explains Bernhard Randerath, vice president of design, engineering and innovation. Current projects focus on airline operations, loyalty and maintenance. For instance, the engineering division has done several proofs of concept to identify value and further develop its software.

Randerath says Etihad works with OEMs, including engine manufacturers, to evaluate all aircraft data. Just as engine OEMs analyze engine data, “component OEMs have access to health data on their components,” he notes. Processed component data is available to Etihad on dashboards summarizing component health across the fleet. And OEMs use the same data to improve component reliability in the future. 

Randerath ticks off a few requirements for exploiting big data in the future: careful management, clear ownership and sharing rights, and high standards of security. He expects data costs to decrease as new transmission tools become available: “Today’s preferred methods using 3G and ACARS will be replaced by next-generation satellite and air-to-ground architectures.” Randerath says that, with the help of partners, his carrier is well-prepared to store and manage big data. For example, Etihad will use Boeing’s Wind Uplink for weather data to save fuel during flights. 

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