APEX2014: Panelists look at the future of e-Enabled aircraft

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Panellists at the e-Enabled aircraft session in Anaheim..
Panelists at the e-Enabled aircraft session in Anaheim.

Panelists at the Apex educational event explored the e-Aircraft concept, with its potential to provide real and valuable cost savings.

The session discussed what an e-Aircraft entails and how best to make it a reality.

E-enablement would integrate all of an aircraft’s systems, allowing aircraft maintenance and performance data to be downloaded, and flight planning, weather and other operational data to be sent back up.

Up to date information for the crew was also critical.

Ian Dawkins, Chief Executive Officer, OnAir, said: “Everyone is trying to jump into aircraft e-Enablement, but it isn’t easy. You have to integrate an awful lot – the aircraft, the satellites and the airlines and their systems.

“You need to have secure systems, you have lots of different aircraft and lots of different satellite providers – how do you integrate this. And who will own the data?”

Dawkins said that you don’t need to transfer all of your data in real time. A lot can be downloaded once the aircraft is on the ground.

“But for the data you do want to download you do need bandwidth, and you have to prioritise what data is critical and what isn’t,” Dawkins said.

He added that: “It will take a long time for e-Enablement to become commonplace across all fleets.

“Aircraft have lifespans of 30 years or so. The economics will also get better down the line, with the next-generation Inmarsat GX I-5 Ka-band and Intelsat’s EpicNG spot beam Ku-band satellites.”

He concluded that if you want to get the benefits of e-Enablement you have a lot to do to integrate everything.

Ted Nugent, Business Development Manager, Transportation European Aviation, Cisco, said you wouldn’t expect to have five different network systems in an office, but we do on an aircraft. But the reason for that is historical.

Nugent said that Cisco has worked with Airbus to see if one network could control everything on one aircraft and proved that it can be done.

“We passed a security audit,” said Nugent. “The core to it is to have two servers. One server handles the plumbing – the communications functions – the other provides the core services.”

Nugent added that a white paper on the Airbus work is due out shortly.

Simon Tudge, ARINC (Rockwell Collins) said that one of the biggest complexities of an e-Enabled aircraft programme is pulling the different parts of an airline together.

“The benefits of e-Enablement take a long while to come through, but they are significant,” he said.

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Mike Moeller, Thales/Live TV, said that one key to aircraft e-Enablement is to get the cost per megabyte down.

“Getting passengers’ information back to the crew is already improving the passenger experience,” said Moeller. An example given was being able to get details of delays up to the aircraft so that passengers could be rebooked while still in flight.

“Maybe the current aircraft are the problem. Future aircraft will be fully connected out of the gate,” Moeller added.

Dave Bijur, Gogo, said: “From our prospective we have tried to give our partners the tools for them to create their own applications. They are a savvy bunch and know more about their business than we do. We focus on getting the data on and off the aircraft.”

David Bruner, Panasonic Avionics Corporation, agreed: “We don’t build all the applications. The name of the game is to give the airlines the tools to connect the aircraft with the ground.

“Panasonic’s role is about providing the best, cheap pipe,” he said.

David Coiley, Inmarsat, said: “Inmarsat’s DNA is based around safety services. We have to provide 99.99% reliability and by doing that we can provide the background for safety services, position reporting and critical communications.

“Future network applications will be based on the back of safety services, which means the airline can build further applications knowing their network is reliable.”

Ted Nugent then spoke about the timescales for future e-Enablement.

Airframers need around 18 months to build, certify and make available. “This stuff exists today – it is all achievable today, but it will be a couple of years before we have everything in place to make this happen across a whole aircraft.”

Panasonic’s Dave Bruner then spoke about the issues surrounding satellite launches. “In six years we have had four launch failures. That has a big impact on the business,” he said.

“But SpaceX is shaking up the business, delivering their own launches every month and driving down costs. We have also spent a tonne of money on antenna development to maximise efficiency and to make sure we don’t throw away bandwidth.”

“It is all about better satellites, better antennas and good reliability. One you get all that right you pave the way for airline-critical data to be transferred.”

He concluded: “Flight tracking is probably one of the most important e-Enabled applications we can implement – we never want to see another MH370 incident.”

The panellists agreed that the key e-Enabled applications were those that could save an airline money, mostly in terms of fuel saving and efficiencies over maintenance and down time.

A two-day conference on e-Enabled aircraft is taking place in London in October 2014. Click for details.

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