Printed headline: Avionics Aspirations
The avionics retrofit market is booming, thanks in large part to mandated safety-related system installations and to deferred aircraft retirements.
“The market has been on a three-year roll, and mandate compliance is a significant driver, with the focus on ADS-B “Out” in North America and Europe,” says Craig Peterson, vice president of Collins Aerospace Avionics. “But, since there is now discussion about mandating ADS-B Out in Canada, Mexico and Brazil, I do not expect that the market will fall off very much beyond the 2020 U.S. and European compliance deadline.”
Also driving the retrofit market are equipage retrofits for Link 2000, a system that enables pilots and controllers to digitally communicate with each other, without voice radio, during the en route flight segment. Link 2000, explains Peterson, has been mandated in Europe over the past 5-6 years, although a specific compliance deadline “has been moving” due to political issues and technical challenges.
Peterson also cites head-up display (HUD) installations, now mandated by China for all air transport aircraft registered in that country. “HUD is a driver for a lot of avionics retrofit activity in that region,” he notes. Similarly, he reports that some Middle Eastern countries, along with Mexico, are considering mandating traffic collision avoidance system 7.1—as it has been in Europe for the past few years.
In addition to mandated equipment, Peterson says the benefits of some upgrades are a strong retrofit market driver: “For example, more airlines are asking for higher-resolution displays, which are more reliable and offer greater longevity because they operate at cooler temperatures than older systems,” he says. “They also want higher-performance radar systems better able to detect weather threats. And then, they want connectivity from the flight deck to the airframe to the ground, which will create significant operational value.”
Upgrades that improve operating efficiency—requiring the installation of systems that allow greater collection, exchange and analysis of data—are also gaining traction, reports Ernest Wyatt, a consultant at Roland Berger. He specifically cites the Airbus A320 and A330 retrofits with FOMAX (Flight Operations and Maintenance Exchanger), co-developed by Airbus and Collins Aerospace. FOMAX increases the amount of aircraft maintenance and performance data that can be recorded and transmitted to the ground crew when the aircraft lands. “FOMAX is linked to Airbus’ Skywise open aviation data analytics platform, and together they allow airlines to gain more insights on aircraft performance and create bespoke maintenance procedures, improve predictive maintenance, therefore improving reliability and utilization of aircraft,” he says.
Where’s the ROI?
Wyatt adds that airlines are also likely to opt for upgrades that optimize flight profiles at the most fuel-efficient cruising speed and altitude. “For instance, Airbus has developed a ‘descent profile optimization’ upgrade for the A320, which lowers fuel consumption by optimizing the landing profile of the aircraft and increasing the cruising time of flight,” he says.
Greg Francois, avionics product sales manager for Honeywell Aerospace, explains that unlike 20 years ago, “technology, for technology’s sake,” no longer sells. “We know that an airline will not even think of a non-mandated upgrade unless the return on investment is under two years—and I only see continued pressure for that time frame to be reduced.” Francois says the larger trend in avionics retrofits has involved “using technology to improve the passenger experience,” which includes cabin connectivity.
“A big one is the JetWave avionics we provide for internet connectivity to the aircraft through the Inmarsat GX Ka-Band broadband service,” he says. “These new technologies that are opening up new possibilities for an airline to enhance its brand and/or grow ancillary revenue are coming at a much more rapid pace than in the past. Really, it’s the same thing we are seeing in the consumer electronics market space.”
For some operators, avionics retrofits are fueled by obsolescence or a looming scarcity of supply for legacy systems that can no longer be ignored. This is particularly true for cockpits still fitted with cathode ray tubes (CRT), explains Bruce Laird, director of avionics business development for Thomas Global Systems in Sydney, Australia.
“What is giving this a matter of urgency is that Toshiba—the last CRT manufacturer—plans to shut down CRT production in 2020,” Laird reports. “Since many airlines are extending the life of aircraft still equipped with CRT displays, there is still a market, but supplies are disappearing.”
Laird says that liquid crystal display (LCD) technology is replacing CRTs, given their lighter weight, higher reliability and longer service life. His company has designed its TFD-7000 as a plug-and-play system to address the time and cost associated with “infrastructure modifications” needed to move from CRT to LCD technology, targeting the Boeing 757/767 retrofit market, which it estimates to be worth more than $100 million over the next 5-10 years. However, it also is marketing the system to 737-300, -400 and -500 operators. “For all of those aircraft, the idea is to replace the Rockwell Collins CRT units that were installed decades ago as original equipment,” he says.
Airbus is also in the vendor’s sights—specifically, early-production A320s and A330s that combined account for an estimated 1,200 candidate aircraft, says Laird. “For that market, developing an LCD retrofit would require working with Thales, which is the CRT’s original OEM,” he explains. “The Thales screens have some unique aspects, particularly with the symbol generator. We are working on this now and are being pressured by airlines operating these aircraft to come up with a solution for a drop-in, plug-and-play flat-panel LCD.”
Laird adds that the TFD-7000 had its first test flight in April on a 767, with approval of a Thomas Global Systems supplemental type certificate (STC) expected in May. An amended STC for installation on the 737-300, -400 and -500 is expected in early June.
Chris Polynin, director of business development for Aircraft Communication and Surveillance Systems (ACSS), a joint venture of Thales and the Commercial Aviation Solutions unit of L3 Technologies, confirms that the company’s two main areas of focus are connectivity and ADS-B “In.” “The whole concept of big data analytics is driving connectivity, and there are a lot of trends with that going on right now,” he says. “Along with that, we are also seeing a lot of retrofit activity with ADS-B In. There is considerable interest in the U.S., and it is now just picking up in Europe and China, as more ADS-B In solutions are being offered at more affordable price-points.”
ACSS is in the process of certifying an ADS-B In solution by mid-2019. SafeRoute+, as it is called, is an updated version of ACSS’ original SafeRoute suite of ADS-B In applications, which it certified in 2007 with UPS. Briefly, SafeRoute+ incorporates a new architecture leveraging existing forward field-of-view displays. In addition, the updated system is to be compliant with DO-317B, which is the latest RTCA evolution standard for ADS-B In applications.
SafeRoute+ is slated for installation on 319 American Airlines Airbus A320s, starting just prior to deployment of the system in revenue service in the fourth quarter of this year. All 319 aircraft are expected to be retrofitted over the next several years, Polynin reports.
The retrofit is being done under the ADS-B In Retrofit Spacing (AIRS) Evaluation Program, a private/public partnership jointly funded by the FAA, ACSS and American Airlines. According to the FAA, AIRS will be “an operational evaluation” of ADS-B In, with specific application to cockpit display of traffic information-assisted visual separation, as well as interval management (IM). Operational evaluation will be at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, with the evaluation of IM management between Albuquerque Center and Phoenix TRACON (terminal radar approach control). An analysis of AIRS is to be completed by September 2022.
As Polynin explains, while there is still no ADS-B In mandate, many operators believe that ADS-B In has greater value than ADS-B Out. “ADS-B In provides a display within the cockpit of nearby aircraft, while ADS-B Out displays aircraft positions only to air traffic control,” he remarks. “And it affords efficiency improvements with respect to accessing the air traffic navigation system. The early adopters are already seeing this.”
“All things considered, I think the market will become more digitalized in the future,” says Alexander Krause, sales manager for avionics and flight deck modifications for Lufthansa Technik. “Regulatory mandates will remain a determining factor for our product portfolio. Also, aircraft condition monitoring and predictive maintenance will become more popular in connection with customized upgrades and new solutions—mitigating the obsolescence issues of aging equipment on aging aircraft.”
In addition to ADS-B Out, he says that over the past two years, Lufthansa Technik’s avionics customers have focused on controller-pilot data link communications, low-frequency underwater locating devices and integrated multi-mode receivers. He also notes that any upgrades facilitating daily operations are increasingly requested by the airlines.
Lufthansa Technik, says Krause, has developed “avionics modifications across the spectrum of aging widebody and single-aisle aircraft for a broad base of airline operators.” Asked if there is a specific emerging segment within the market, he says the typical operator seeking avionics modifications has a fleet over 15-20 years old. “With this group, an expensive upgrade from an airframe OEM would no longer be an option.”
Avionics upgrade customers today typically opt for new large digital displays to replace analog dials or older-generation, low-resolution small displays, says Kin Chong, executive vice president of the business coordination division of Evergreen Aviation Technologies in Taiwan.
“The avionics upgrades of recent years have trended toward larger displays, accommodating larger presentations, larger fonts and additional flight information to enable the pilots to make informed judgments,” says Chong. He says this could lead to fewer display requirements.
Over the next 5-10 years, Chong predicts that big data requirements will become a major driver in the avionics retrofit market. “As analysis and processing of data in the big data realm takes on increasing importance for operational risk and efficiency management, avionics suite upgrades on an aircraft will be but one of the means to achieve this.”