The connected cockpit

Captain Mary McMillan reveals how aviation connectivity will improve safety

Mary Mcmillan image

One of the most striking changes that the digital world has brought to the cockpit is the phasing out the traditional flight bag. Flight bags are the bulky black bags that pilots have carried on planes for decades. Full of hundreds of pages of paper charts and flight plans, they can weigh up to 40 pounds. However, over the last five years, many have been replaced with tablet computers. These weigh closer to two pounds and carry all information electronically.

Now, another digital change is coming – and it promises to be even bigger than the electronic flight bag. For the first time, high-speed, secure broadband is coming to the cockpit, delivering much faster communications and a host of new safety and operational applications that were never before available. Powerful enough to allow pilots to stream graphical weather updates and airplane data, it will bring vast improvements for flight safety and airline efficiency. This new secure, digital platform is called Swift Broadband–Safety (SB-S).

“This represents a true paradigm shift,” says Inmarsat Aviation’s VP of Safety and Operational Services, Captain Mary McMillan.  “The SwiftBroadband-Safety platform is going to increase the level of information and knowledge that we use every day on the flight deck by orders of magnitude. It will boost the efficiency of flights, improve safety, and make flights more punctual. It’s very exciting.”

In the past, it would take several minutes to send and receive messages via data link. Now it takes seconds.

Faster, clearer communications

Perhaps the most obvious and immediate improvement for pilots is that communication will be much faster and better quality. Hawaiian Airlines has evaluated the SB-S system and, as Captain David Valente notes: “In the past, it would take several minutes to send and receive messages via data link. Now it takes seconds. The quality of voice communication has improved so much that it’s like using a landline.”

SwiftBroadband–Safety is a natural evolution of Inmarsat’s legacy services which have served airlines for over 25 years. Classic Aero is currently the market-leading voice and data safety service, used by more than 200 major airlines, jet operators and government agencies. When it launched in 1990, it expanded the number of aircraft able to safely fly over the world’s oceans at any one time by 300%. Over the last two decades it has proved to be extremely capable and reliable. But technology has changed – and SB-S promises to again revolutionise the safe flight of airplanes through the skies.

SB-S is the most powerful and versatile satellite communication solution for the cockpit. Multiple voice channels allow flight crew members to hold conversations at the same time, with no effect of data transmission speeds. Three types of connections ensure that SB-S is unique among satellite communications systems. With ACARS over IP, the powerful Air Traffic Services applications that have enabled the expansion of oceanic airspace by over 300% will be faster, stronger, and more reliable. An IP channel allows AAC and AOC applications to provide passenger information to the destination. And the prioritised IP connection will bring real-time data streaming, position reporting, and power the electronic flight bag.

Data transmission itself will be up to ten times faster over SB-S. There will be far more bandwidth over two channels, one for high priority information, the other for lower priorities. The aircraft will be able to constantly broadcast the health of its systems to the ground. This means that engineering teams will be alerted to any problems or maintenance requirements on the fly. It will also make predictive maintenance easier. If you can precisely track the health and service status of a part, then you can plan the precise moment to best schedule hangar time to replace it. This, in turn, will reduce unnecessary maintenance stops and streamline engineering logistics.

Support for real-time medical emergency applications such as remote diagnoses will help avoid medical diversions. Real-time graphic weather will mean that planes can adjust their course to avoid bad weather as it happens. Flight data monitoring, quality assurance, exceedance alerts and fuel use monitoring can help reduce delays and hence reduce compensation claims, unplanned maintenance, fuel bills, and even offer the potential for real-time intervention in developing safety or security situations. SB-S also supports much faster position reporting, in terms of seconds as opposed to minutes, which is necessary to enable reduced separation minima and thus provide customers with significant increases in flight efficiency and flexibility – this translates directly into savings in cost and time – as well as reductions in CO2 emissions.

More accurate data means safer flying

SB-S brings global flight tracking, allowing airlines to benefit from near real-time reporting of aircraft latitude, longitude, altitude, true heading, and groundspeed. The system provides continuous high-interval position reporting, at 1-minute or faster, which may be initiated in response to established parameters that indicate a flight abnormality. Paired with rapid notification of distress conditions to airlines and rescue coordination authorities, a narrowed search radius will provide far greater assurance of quickly locating a missing plane. 

Higher capacity throughput will also allow the implementation of what we call the ‘black box in the cloud.’  Flight Data Recorders and Cockpit Voice Recorders are the ultra-robust (bright orange) boxes that record aircraft vital signs and cockpit conversations. In the event of a loss or serious incident, they’re used by investigators to help determine what went wrong. Inmarsat’s SB-S can be used to stream this Flight Data Recorder information off the aircraft in real time.

Vastly greater connectivity and more data means that better IT security is needed – and just as the cockpit and the cabin are separated by a physical door, the data for passenger broadband in the cabin and SB-S in the cockpit will be separated by a ‘data fortress door.’ This is a key component of SwiftBroadband-Safety which utilizes the highest level of security protocols to ensure robust levels of encryption and security. It means that demand for passenger or other data will not affect the safety-critical cockpit data.

The transformative power of IP-based connectivity within the flight deck can now be realised, with Inmarsat setting the standards for next generation aviation.