The evolution of connected aircraft

From that first twelve-second flight at Kitty Hawk to today’s floating broadband-enabled jumbo jets, aviation technology has pushed the boundaries of what’s possible. Today, the promise of the Internet of Things (IoT)—where a refrigerator can seamlessly communicate with a grocery store—begs the question of what’s in store for an industry that is both progressive and historically risk averse. To grasp where aviation could be heading, it’s important to understand how technology has evolved in the industry.

Prior to the digital revolution, simple technological solutions were developed such as Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS). Still in place today, airlines began installing this basic messaging tool in the late ‘70s to support automated time tracking. Another example of how airlines operated before the onset of the digital revolution is the traditional pilot flight bag. Flight bags held operating manuals for the specific aircraft, operations manuals for the flight crew, aeronautical and navigational charts, flight checklists, logbooks, and more. These bags could weigh around 40 pounds!

Inexpensive consumer laptop technology ushered in the era of eEnablement. The cost of laptops rapidly declined and at the same time performance was deemed stable enough to use in aviation. Portable computing changed aviation, inherently improving operational efficiency as pilots began leveraging laptops in the cockpit instead of physically toting around stacks of maps, document libraries, and charts.

The decreasing cost of computing then gave rise to even more portable tablet devices and pushed the industry even further. Unlike laptops, tablets have an insatiable thirst for a network connection. This thirst drove the need for more internet protocol (IP) connectivity. Connexion by Boeing introduced IP as the default standard for communication around 2004. This allowed isolated systems to connect more easily than legacy systems like ACARS. This connectivity, coupled with the IP standard, set the stage for the current era: Connected Aircraft.

A Connected Aircraft uses IP networks on the plane to connect to ground systems via broadband. Sensors can now communicate with each other, streaming mountains of information about flight performance to enable more informed decisions. However, data is not readily transmitted from the plane – if at all – until the plane lands.

The application of IoT to aviation will move the industry to the next era focused on seamless communication from all systems and the transmission of real-time data from the plane as needed. When each aircraft’s network can seamlessly communicate with the ground, the rest of the fleet, and to other connected systems such as baggage or catering, this becomes a system of systems known as Connected Aviation. Examples of this new era of technology include real-time baggage tracking, wearable tech crew uniforms, crowd sourcing aircraft data, and airport information beacons, to name a few. The impact of IoT on aircraft operations will be significant with flight optimization and improved maintenance resulting in reduced flight delays or cancellations, and smoother flights for passengers.

Several catalysts are driving the industry toward Connected Aviation – today, we are in the infancy of Connected Aviation and it’s only a matter of time before it becomes the industry standard. “The interest we’re seeing in the aviation industry is all the way from customers, to suppliers, to airframers, to airlines, and to the major industrial equipment providers,” said Dave Bartlett, CTO from GE Aviation.