Keynote speeches from Google, Facebook, Netflix and Visa at the 2017 Global Connected Aircraft Summit (GCAS) showed how aviation's internet of things (IOT) age is becoming a reality.
Facebook wants to use its Aquila drone packed with solar cells and batteries as internet service signal repeaters in remote areas. Google's keynote speech came a day after its parent company, Alphabet, conducted a test of an unmanned traffic management concept of operations for package-carrying Intel and DJI drones.
Netflix has launched connectivity-based partnerships with several airlines over the past year, including Aeromexico and Virgin Australia, with a focus on creating partnerships that support the establishment of low-cost or free inflight Wi-Fi.
"We think that ultimately the technology trends are moving in the right direction to support this business model," said Netflix VP of Finance Spencer Wang. "Satellite capacity is growing, Ku capacity is growing. At the same time on our end, we're working on more efficient end codes to make streaming delivery more efficient. In the reasonably near future, we'll be able to deliver a DVD-quality stream to mobile devices for 250 kilobits a second. That's the big-picture idea."
The Netflix consumer insights team also has been collecting data on passenger trends in the early deployment of Netflix in flight and has found a 58% increase in the likelihood to fly among business travelers when they discover the airline offers free Wi-Fi and Netflix. Wang said Netflix has also considered using onboard servers to provide Netflix to passengers without using internet connectivity. The problem with that is that Netflix can't find a server with enough storage capacity to provide its six terabytes of content. The company also does see internet-based streaming as a staple in future cabins.
Wang said his opinion is that commercial aviation in a couple of years "will cross a point where connectivity costs are probably going to be cheaper for the airline than actually investing in in-flight entertainment."
Google also is already a major part of air transportation, with its Google Flights travel search engine and drone-delivery experiment Project Wing.
Google has been innovative within the airport environment itself, most notably through its Project Tango work with California's San Jose International Airport and British Airways. The project's goal is to enable location-based, augmented reality, mobile-application technology that provides an interactive navigation experience through an airport.
"Using augmented reality and beacons, combined with search and cloud platforms, creates this fully connected experience," said Google Partnership Development Manager Max Coppin. "It navigates around an indoor building in very much the way you would. It can see the table, it tells you to walk around the table. It's much more human in many ways." Passengers also can use the technology to view virtual airport displays with real-time gate and destination information.
During his keynote speech, the VP of Visa's Global Merchant Client Group, Todd Gaspard, extended an open invitation to airlines and aircraft connectivity and content providers to pay a visit to one of the company's five innovation centers around the world. At them, Visa is actively partnering with other companies to help create new forms of future-facing technologies to improve the connected air travel experience.
In describing a recent collaboration with a travel and entertainment service provider, Gaspard said Visa has helped create "an app-based self-service concierge" that uses aggregated spend data from customers to provide them with the best locations to visit based on their purchase history and personal interests. For example, Gaspard said, an air traveler in a hotel room overlooking an unfamiliar city could use an iPad with the augmented-reality app developed by Visa and its partners to show virtually where restaurants and other attractions are. It also further enhances the experience by pulling review data on businesses and offering to order an Uber to take the traveler to a destination.
"We're just at the beginning of entering this world where, through APIs, data can be accessed … from all the other travel industry participants that may not exactly be in your vertical, but are tangentially connected to you through the customer's journey, physically connecting yourself to them through APIs and other partners," said Gaspard. That "is the vision we see for creating that connected journey for customers."
Challenges to Speedy Innovation
Perspectives from operators and OEMs at the annual summit provide a realistic view of what's possible and what's still five to 10 years or more away. That was the message stressed by John Merritt, director of information technology at United Airlines. In his presentation, Merritt provided a case study of United's fleet of more than 700 aircraft and how the airline is embracing connectivity and new concepts and procedures.
"Most of the time we're not using special hold opportunities to install new avionics or new equipment. We're using planned opportunities," said Merritt, noting that under usual conditions, when United makes a purchase decision, it could take up to three years to install that new equipment across just one aircraft fleet type and up to six years for the entire airline.
"You're saying in six to seven years time, what I've purchased today is still going to be relevant and useful to my airline?" he posed. "We change more dramatically and quickly than that. In two years, there will be new technology available."
Other major barriers to speedy introduction of new capabilities are costs and security issues.
"To change one line of code in a critical aircraft system is about a million dollars," said Boeing Commercial Airplanes' chief engineer for cabin and network systems, John Craig. His job includes overseeing the network- and information-security-related risks associated with infusing more internet protocol on airframes. Safety associated with new computers and servers on aircraft is more related to the physical design and casing of the box. But it's the security element that worries Craig most.
"Security is about malicious intent, and you can never design that out of a system," he said. "I feel like an evangelist sometimes at these events because we live in a legacy world in aviation. Maybe it's time to start changing that, but we have to figure out the cost aspect. How do we put these systems on the airplanes and fuse them with the ground systems and make them cost effective?"
Connected Flight Ops Evolution
Regarding the end users of the connected aircraft, panel discussions and presentations at GCAS remain split in the same way that most major airlines and private jet operators are: between cabin passenger usage of broadband for business and entertainment and flight crew and maintenance team usage for improving flight operational efficiency and predicting maintenance. Every year, pilots and operations experts share new uses of connectivity they're discovering, as well as things they'd like to do but which need more research.
For example, in 2016, Southwest Airlines' team lead for electronic flight bag projects, Will Ware, told attendees that the U.S.-based carrier's cockpits lacked operational connectivity. Now, Southwest pilots have access to satellite-based Wi-Fi, primarily for access to updated weather information, which Ware calls a "game changer." He also clarified one of the aspects of cabin and cockpit Wi-Fi usage that has mystified the industry – the notion that pilots use the same Wi-Fi link as passengers.
"We have two separate networks," said Ware. "There's a passenger network and a crew network, and they have dedicated service set identifiers. I don't think we're competing between the two. So far it's been working pretty well to have those pipes separated."
Another operational usage of cockpit connectivity is a shift toward digital or electronic flight dispatch release and the way in which operators can build redundancy into that process. FedEx is doing so by using different types of tablets to receive digital dispatch clearances, according to Ross Armstrong, fleet technical pilot for the that company's flight operations team.
"We've gone so far as to diversify with both Windows and iOS [tablets]. There's been numerous times when failures in one had no impact on the fleet because we have the others in place," said Armstrong.
Flight crews are using satellite-based connectivity to avoid the limitations of very high frequency data links and subscription costs that airlines incur when trying to get access to weather updates in different corners of the globe.
"In China, uploading our flight plan and clearance into the aircraft flight management system via very high frequency is the normal on-ground communication,"said Scandinavian Airlines Chief Pilot Thomas Lunding. "I've instructed my colleague pilots to force the satcom to kick in and take the data from that instead, and that works much better. Connectivity in different forms works differently in different parts of the world."