DALLAS—GE Aviation and Avionica will soon begin flight-testing an onboard configuration that pairs a flight management system (FMS) with an electronic flight bag (EFB), such as an Apple iPad, and enable data sharing between the two independent platforms.
Designed to reduce pilot workload and optimize operations, GE's Connected FMS will begin testing on a Miami Air International Boeing 737-800 in the coming weeks. Assuming all goes well, an FAA supplemental type certificate will be in hand by mid-year, and GE Aviation will begin offering it to the broader market, said Gary Thelen, GE Aviation's FMS Product Manager.
The concept essentially extends an EFB's flexibility to the FMS, the onboard computer system that automates key flight tasks.
"It's enabling all the functionality that we have on the tablets—from charts to maps—to communicate and keep up to date with what's in the FMS," said Thelen. "Map applications get out of date almost right away pre-flight, because as soon as you have a flight-plan change, your EFB application is out of date. From a pilot workload standpoint, they don't want to take the time and energy to go back and make those updates into the EFB. With this link, those updates automatically synch with the FMS, and the flight plan in your tablet is always up to date."
EFBs have been growing in both popularity and capability. Pilots have at app their fingertips that assist with everything from re-routing around weather to optimizing routings for minimal fuel consumption. However, any work done on the iPad—such as finding a way around a storm cell—cannot be transferred into an integrated FMS.
"This is part of a natural progression going on in the industry," Thelen said. EFBs are seen as useful tools, "but if you talk to airlines, they still have limited value because the embedded FMS is the only truth—what an aircraft needs to fly," he said. "Creating a secure connection between the two opens the door to a lot more."
GE created a software development kit that third-party developers can use to create apps suitable for the environment. Critically, the kit includes the necessary security protocols required for the FMS-EFB link.
The procedure connects an FMS and EFB using a one-time pin code entered into the FMS, similar to a Bluetooth pairing. Once paired, flight plans and other performance data are automatically pushed to the linked EFB, where pilots can use it with specific apps. For example, the current route's fixes are sent to the EFB and displayed on a navigational chart, and a weather app can overlay current conditions. The pilot can select a new route and—assuming the deviation is cleared by air traffic control—upload it into the FMS. Sending routes from the EFB to the aircraft mirrors receiving a route-modification message via the aircraft communications addressing and reporting system (ACARS), with the exception of a prompt indicating the portable device as the source. The pilot uses the FMS to accept all changes, just as via ACARS.
"It operates exactly like an [airline operations center] upload would from a pilot's perspective," Thelen said.
The system could be available on nearly 12,000 in-service aircraft with GE FMSs, if customer demand warrants. Among the aircraft with GE FMSs: the 737 Classic and NG lines and the Airbus A320.