It was back in 2003, I was at the Flight Operations Center (FOC) at an international airline in this region, waiting to meet Mr. Sabesan, the person in charge of the FOC. He and his team were very busy handling an emergency situation. After about 90 minutes Mr. Sabesan came out, he was ecstatic and had a big smile on his face, “We saved 300+ people on board today, a near miracle” he said. Apparently, one of their wide body aircrafts coming from Maldives had developed a critical engine snag during flight and the onboard system had sent a message to their datacenter. The ground staff were alerted and they had analyzed the snag and were able to immediately upload new flight plan and divert the flight to a nearby airport, what otherwise could have been a catastrophic incident. Due to the messaging system & the associated diagnostic tools on the ground, they were also able diagnose and isolate the fault and keep the replacement part ready and have the engine repaired, and get the flight back on to its original destination. This particular Airline, being a forward looking and early adopter of technologies, had equipped a system (I was then working on) in their aircraft fleet which will monitor some key engine health parameters during flight. This system had a rudimentary messaging system called ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System), which connects to the onboard Condition and Health Monitoring System of the aircraft and relay few critical information to the ground using the VHF data link communication system (at 10-15 kbps).
With the growing availability of broadband and satellite (satcom) connectivity, and increasing connectivity offerings from OEMs and their suppliers, the airlines are able to get more bandwidth (40-50 mbs) and the pipe will continue to increase. With this increased connectivity, a Connected Aircraft is becoming reality. In other words, connectivity is not just having “Internet” in the aircraft for Passenger Entertainment, it is bringing Aircraft itself to the internet. Aircraft is probably the most expensive assets, after spacecraft we have ever built on this planet, and if we are able to monitor them in real time, the benefits would be awesome. The airlines are seeing the advantage of using this connectivity to become more efficient and safer. Newer airplanes (e.g B 787) are also fitted with WLU (Wireless LAN Unit) which are used for data transfer while the aircraft is on the ground.
Not too far away in the future, we can expect every aircraft will be connected to the ground and to other aircrafts. Airlines/Operators can not only monitor the aircraft & its systems real time, the flight crew and onboard systems can also share information to other aircrafts for safer and efficient flights. For example:
1) Connected Engine: Imagine if the Engine has the ability to speak to the crew onboard and ground that it needs maintenance within 2 weeks or this particular part needs to be replaced and communicates directly to the Connected Warehouse and Connected Hanger to schedule a maintenance. Engine being the most expensive and safety critical part of an Aircraft, Engine Manufactures typically provide real time monitoring of engines as a service with the current limited bandwidth. With more bandwidth available, we will see some part of the onboard edge analytics getting shifted to the cloud and more & more ‘BIG data’ analytics on the cloud with the concept of Digital Twins to monitor the individual engine performance and perform predictive maintenance.
2) Connected Weather Radar: The current radars onboard the aircraft are forward looking with a limited field of view and range. With the future radars which are connected, a comprehensive view of the weather situation can be obtained along the aircraft’s projected route to ensure much safer and smoother flights. The “Connected” concept can be further extended to other systems on the aircraft be it the Airframe, Flight Controls, Avionics, Landing Gear, or Connected Tire or even a Connected Meal Plate.
Automotive Industry is already ahead in embracing the Connectivity paradigm and there are concepts, best practices and business models that that can be leveraged from Automotive to Aircraft industry. As we see it happening in the Automotive Industry, “Connectivity” breaks boundaries In the future scenario of a Connected World, the Connected Aircraft is not a choice any more, it will be a basic necessity. With the concept of free flights, increased number of air vehicles in the airspace, including drones, we can expect connectivity becomes the backbone of the future air navigation. Sky will be the true limit for the benefits and value we can derive out of the future Connected Aircraft, with more and more value added analytics, with better sensors and gateways (for legacy aircrafts) onboard with increased security, and improved AI & Machine Learning algorithms.