How Connected Aircraft Technology Works

Airplanes have now evolved from simple aircraft into complex, network-based flying machines filled with sensors and IoT-based components. This evolution, called connected aviation by many in the industry, is similar in scope to what is happening in the automobile industry, where cars contain various different sensors and components that communicate to an outside network and at times with each other.

Aircraft has lagged behind this evolution, however, due to stringent regulatory and safety standards associated with aircraft installations, combined with the variety of aircraft types and stalled connectivity. Yet now the aircraft industry is catching up, with the adoption of an “aviation technology stack,” says the book, From the Ground Up: How the Internet of Things will Give Rise to Connected Aviation.

The Aviation Technology stack is a technology infrastructure based on the New Technology Stack outlined by PTC’s Jim Heppelmann and Harvard’s Michael Porter. The New Technology Stack is a new technology infrastructure that includes modified hardware, software applications, and an operating system embedded in the product itself; network communications to support connectivity; and a product cloud (software running on the manufacturer’s or a third-party server).

“This technology enables not only rapid product application development and operation but the collection, analysis, and sharing of the potentially huge amounts of longitudinal data generated inside and outside the products that have never been available before,” the HBR article states.

At the heart of the Aviation Technology Stack is connectivity, which connects disparate sensors and components in an aircraft together in order to collect and receive data.

“Connectivity is central to IoT,” the authors of From the Ground Up write. “It is the glue that binds all the sensors and devices in a system together. Connectivity drives opportunities by providing pathways to transfer data in real-time and enabling predictive capabilities.”

However, since airlines in flight are a far distance from the core system components located on the ground, aircraft are considered “edge devices.” Technologically speaking, an edge device is a device that connects an internal local area network (LAN) to an external wide area network (WAN) over the internet. So rather than having data hosted on a cloud, it provides interconnectivity and traffic flow between various networks.

The Aviation technology stack has four systems:

Smart Systems Applications are cloud-based applications managing the monitoring, control, optimization, and autonomous operation of system functions

Systems Data Database (Data Lake): This involves the collection of data sets relevant to multiple systems aggregated through normalization and management of real-time and historical systems data.

Rules/Analytics Engine for Systems Rules: This offers business logic and data-analysis capabilities that populate systems-based algorithms to reveal new insights for aircraft.

Systems Application Platform Application: Provides the development environment enabling the creation of smart, connected system applications using data access and run-time tools.

These systems connect to the “edge computing” aircraft information system. The result is more connected aircraft that runs on an Internet of Things (IoT)-based technology, with components and sensors interacting with each other, moving across IP networks.

There is a host of benefits to these new connected aircraft, with the primary one being better aircraft maintenance. By collecting data from a growing number of sensors on the aircraft, crews can potentially identify issues earlier and save money. Pilots can more easily find and report system errors, since connected sensors can create a logbook entry automatically, complete with all the diagnostic data.

Other benefits include a better passenger experience, greater information for pilots including real-time weather forecasts, radar data, turbulence data and more. 

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