Is Cockpit Connectivity Advancing Flight Planning?

Is increasing connectivity to business aircraft flightdecks making it easier for pilots to adjust plans and manage flights more efficiently in real time, in-flight? Chris Kjelgaard investigates…

Chris Kjelgaard  |  10th November 2020
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    Chris Kjelgaard
    Chris Kjelgaard

    Chris Kjelgaard has been an aviation journalist for more than 40 years and has written on multiple topics...

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    Pilots can modify flight plans before, during and after flight

    Business aircraft operators, pilots and owners worldwide are well aware that the levels of digital connectivity to the flightdeck—as well as to the passenger cabin—are experiencing a near-revolution.

    Nearly every launch of a new Ka-band or Ku-band communications satellite, and nearly every new air-toground terrestrial comms station that comes online, adds to the area coverage and data-transmission capabilities of one or another of the many aeronautical telecommunications networks now serving the aviation industry.

    So it is increasingly important to know whether growing data-transmission capability can actually help pilots adjust flight plans, so they can manage flights more efficiently while their aircraft are actually in the air. If higher data rates to the cockpit can indeed allow pilots to manage flights better while in transit, then it is also highly important to know exactly how the increased information flows can assist with pilot workload and decision-making.

    A Resounding ‘Yes!’

    The answer to the first question is a resounding ‘Yes’, according to Nick Cook, Vice President Flightdeck Services for Satcom Direct.

    Already, today, pilots of many commercial and business aircraft are able to use information provided either by text through a datalink network such as Controller-Pilot Data Link Communication (CPDLC), or graphically by means of real time updates of weather, traffic and airspace information to the aircraft’s avionics equipment to make in-flight adjustments to route trajectories and flight timing.

    As the capabilities of datalink networks (like CPDLC) continue to be updated, ensuring reliability and sufficient capacity to support increased usage and content, messages will be able to convey multiple flight plan adjustment options to pilots in-flight, and can advise pilots of any relevant changes in en route and terminal area weather conditions, Cook says.

    According to Craig Peterson, Vice President, Digital Connected Solutions for Collins Aerospace, in situations where pilots receive updated information graphically in real time for flight planning and flight management purposes, the information is often delivered to a centralized data repository in the cockpit.

    This is most commonly a secure router and server which acts as the aircraft interface device linking the pilots’ electronic flight bags (EFBs) with the aircraft’s avionics equipment, thus providing updates of information both to the pilots’ EFBs and to the aircraft’s flight computers and displays.

    Satcom Direct's FlightDeck Freedom is designed to streamline pilot workload

    Real-time Adjustment with FlightDeck Freedom

    Through its trademarked FlightDeck Freedom (FDF) datalink service (which it says is fully compatible with all avionics and airframe manufacturers’ systems), Satcom Direct already provides a variety of real-time weather, runway analysis, emergency procedures and airspace-update information to business aircraft pilots in-flight.

    Cook says the company begins doing so for a given flight as soon as the pilots have filed the flight plan. One useful FDF function is that it automatically uplinks the flight’s Pre-Departure Clearance, and it also automatically receives and uploads any service advisories relevant to the aircraft.

    Additionally, says Cook, through its FDF datalink, Satcom Direct is able to provide pilots of any given flight various automated alerts concerning weather conditions at the flight’s departure airport, its planned route, its intended arrival airport and all of the flight’s designated alternate airports.

    Through datalink messages it also advises pilots in real time of any relevant security event at the departure, arrival and alternate airports to allow the pilots to make timely routing decisions in operating the flight.

    Satcom Direct uses a variety of weather forecasting and security companies to provide the detailed flight-management alerts it sends business aircraft pilots in-flight via FDF datalink, and the information these suppliers provide is always immediate, according to Cook. Satcom Direct’s onward transmission of the alerts is “pretty quick— we send it out within a few minutes” of receiving it from the specialist suppliers, Cook adds.

    Of further use to business-aircraft operators is that FDF data-linking is not just one-way. FDF allows transmission of crew alerting system reports, centralized maintenance computer reports and engine trend reports from the aircraft to the operator’s maintenance department.

    And it sends take-off/landing analysis, flight-trajectory-and-performance reports and exact flight-time and crew-time reports to the flight operations and scheduling departments.

    Satcom Direct activated FlightDeck Freedom on over 2000 aircraft

    TASAR: On-the-Fly Flight-Planning for the Future? 

    Beyond all of FDF’s impressive capabilities, however, an even more promising future beckons for highly flexible flight-management and real-time adjustment of flight plans in the air.

    Until the COVID-19 pandemic applied sharp braking to aviation-industry activity in March 2020, major US airlines continued to show interest in a NASA-led program to develop technology and techniques aimed at creating a flightdeck-based decision-making tool which would allow pilots in US domestic airspace to adjust flight plans and manage flights flexibly throughout.

    First conceived in 2012 and involving NASA, Collins Aerospace, air-to-ground connectivity provider Gogo, and Alaska Airlines as the operational trialist, the Traffic Aware Strategic Aircrew Request (TASAR) project streamed TCAS, GPS, and other Air Data System info into Collins Aerospace’s secure server routers on the flightdecks of three in-service Alaska Airlines commercial jets as they operated commercial flights.

    In each aircraft, the router served as the AID between the pilots’ EFBs and the aircraft’s avionics systems, according to Peterson. Using algorithms developed specifically for the purpose, the TASAR router units distributed to the pilots’ tablet EFBs potential flight trajectory-optimization solutions the routers derived from the traffic and position data streamed to the aircraft.

    In providing the solutions, the AID units continually computed deviation and hazard avoidance from both the terrestrial TASAR data set and the aircraft’s onboard data set. To maintain cost-efficiency but provide more bandwidth than would be possible by using a text-based network such as ACARS or CPDLC, the TASAR data streams were fed into the aircraft by Internet Protocol using the IP networks to the passenger cabins.

    However, upon reaching the aircraft the TASAR data was branched off into separate pipes into the secure server router which acted as the AID. Peterson notes Alaska Airlines flew approximately 100 flights with the three aircraft during the trial, the most resource-intensive part of which ended a little over a year ago. 

    The three Alaska Airlines aircraft still have the TASAR units installed, so trials can begin again at an opportune time.

    In future TASAR trials, NASA and the other project participants would hope to include additional sources and types of data, says Peterson.

    Sources considered could include weather-radar data from ground radars, and aggregated, parsed Connected Weather data from the airborne weather-radar sets in fleets of aircraft. 

    Data on airspace closures, including polygons of permanently closed airspace, areas of Temporary Flight Restriction and Military Operating Areas could also go into the TASAR mix, as could data on winds aloft and at airport surface level.

    Last but not least, data on – and forecasts regarding – convective weather and convective weather threats could form part of the overall TASAR hazard-avoidance picture. Other US carriers followed the initial Alaska Airlines TASAR trials and indicated interest in potentially trialing the system too. The reason for interest isn’t hard to fathom.

    Even without the additional data sets NASA and its industry partners would like to include in a second-phase TASAR trial, Alaska Airlines found that on average the trajectory-optimization tool saved it 0.3%-0.5% of total fuel burn per flight where TASAR was initially trialed.

    Though the TASAR-derived fuel-burn savings were minimal on flights in areas of very congested airspace, on flights in areas of very un-congested airspace Alaska Airlines was able to save as much as 3%-4% of total fuel burn per flight, says Peterson.

    He points out that, if the entire global airline industry had used TASAR throughout 2019, even at the 0.3%-0.5% average fuel burn saving the tool helped Alaska Airlines’ pilots achieve per flight, the industry would have burned 478m gallons of fuel less than it did, and thus would have emitted about 4.5m tons less CO2 into the atmosphere than it did.

    While Business Aviation companies wouldn’t be able to achieve fuel-burn savings of such magnitude (since bizjets don’t typically fly anywhere near as many hours per year as airliners), TASAR-derived fuel savings would nevertheless be highly worthwhile—quite apart from the other operational benefits TASAR would offer through flight-trajectory optimization.

    Further Benefits

    Continuing advancement in the degree of connectivity provided to business-aircraft flightdecks, and in the sources and types of digital data which increased connectivity streams from the ground to the cockpit and vice-versa, can provide pilots and operators with additional benefits, beyond those already highlighted.

    For instance, Cook notes, within his company’s overarching SD Pro equipment-agnostic flight communications and operations platform, Standard Aero’s FDF service can provide pilots with information about the suppliers they may encounter at different airports so they can make informed decisions regarding fuel providers and FBO services along the route.

    More generally, Satcom Direct’s post-flight data service product provides its customers with many areas of specific information on the performance, timing and technical aspects of each flight.

    This helps them complete all the forms customers are required to complete for regulatory purposes, and allows their flight operations, maintenance and scheduling departments to perform key tasks better because the departments have the exact information required to do so.

    Similarly, says Peterson, data sent to and from digitally connected flightdecks will assist operators to manage three aspects of their flight operations better in the future. First, it will help them reduce fuel burn by means of allowing crews to optimize flight trajectories and manage flights better.

    Second, high-level, big-data analysis of all the digital data from connected systems will help maintenance departments look for “combinations of trends and misbehaviors” at the aggregated multi-system level which may not be perceptible in analyzing single systems in isolation.

    This will help operators avoid delays, minimize turnaround times and reduce the numbers of instances of flight turn-backs.

    And finally, by using digital media to deliver updates to all operations-related technical documents such as operational notices, manuals, flight databases, logbooks, and minimum equipment lists and other checklists, “huge labor and logistics efficiencies” will be created, Peterson concludes.

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