A little bit of bandwidth can go a long way in the cockpit, it seems.
AirAsia is fitting each of its Airbus A320s with Flight Focus' Class III electronic flight bag (EFB), which uses an Iridium satellite pipe to bring real-time applications and messaging to pilots (versus, say, the Ku pipe that Lufthansa will use to bring real-time EFB to its pilots).
I've written about the retrofit programme for Flight International but space constraints prevented me from publishing some of the juicy details from my interview with AirAsia Captain Michael Lee, the project coordinator/technical pilot assigned to the EFB project.
First, though, here is a key quote from Flight Focus:
"It is a well known fact that Atlantic and Pacific operators using ACARS are restricted to a minimal use of ACARS messaging due to the associated costs, with position updates, etc being passed only once every 2hrs or so. Through our ability to run our Class 3 EFB and Iridium in parallel to ACARS (i.e. without conflicting with existing SITA or ARINC comms), we are able to provide an extremely cost effective and global alternative that enables airlines to use an EFB system as it should be used - not cost constrained."
One-on-one with Captain Michael Lee
1) As a pilot, what is the most useful aspect of having connected EFB for you?
As a pilot, to be able to obtain latest data (be it weather, notams, snowtams, sigmets, Volcanic ash reports) is a key element for a quicker decision making and more efficient flight management. Havings more sets of "eyes" watching you with realtime flight following performance data from a connected efb gives comfort to pilots that they are not alone. Maintenance proactiveness is increased with the same connected efb alerting them with current faults or "unusual engine behaviour". Pilots can then communicate and seek recommendations or best actions commercially for the company, without compromising safety. The electronic charts are great.
2) Is the low-bandwidth Iridium link enough to support the applications you need/desire? Do you see any need for a higher-band width solution (like L-band, Ku, or ultimately Ka) to support real-time EFB in the future?
The current solution provides cockpit email and SMS connectivity during the flight, flight following both downstream (i.e. the aircraft reporting automatically back to flight dispatch, including OOOI) as well as upstream (TAF/METAR, NOTAM, graphical SigMET, graphical SatWx updated in a push mode (no need for the pilot to request data), system-internal hand shakes to guarantee completeness, accuracy and confirmed delivery of data, engineering / maintenance data support, AOC messaging,
There are provisions in the system to support CPDLC data transport, if required at a later stage. All this can be supported by the present "low bandwidth" linkage. There is nothing in terms of real-time connectivity lacking that would be required for a complete solution.
While capability is one element, low operating cost is another, because AirAsia has managed to cut their communications cost at the same time.
It is essential to note that the airborne capability goes hand-in-hand with a "no cost" (in terms of data transmission) airport connectivity. This is key, because today, many arguments for "broadband" are based on substantial data that is effectively transmitted from or to the aircraft at airports. For this, I am briefed that there is no reason why KU or KA band "broadband" should be necessary for cockpit or engineering, neither from the cost nor from the capability point of view. Passenger entertainment is a different matter, but we prefer to strictly separate traffic here anyway. For hardware, I am briefed that the the drag induced by KU or similar antennas incurs a heavy fuel/load penalty. Another point to note is simplicity of installation- the Iridium narrow-band system AirAsia uses employs a very small antenna only (flat, about 10cm diameter), and operates on low-power equipment. All this contributes to lower cost- while still giving 100% of the capability that is required, fittable in 12h end-to-end.
3) Does the connected EFB have any interface with the aircraft avionics? What are the security protocols in place (to guard against malicious intent)?
Yes. The EFB receives data from various pick up points (ARINC429), and acts as a data recorder (ARINC717). It can operate as a full Class III device, if necessary. Security is handled on multiple levels:- there is no outside "internet protocol" connection into the system, I am briefed that it's all packetized, and encrypted and digitally signed data packets. PKI is used, which means that the incoming packets need to be encrypted with an authorized sender key, and the recipient key of the specific aircraft. In case the wrong keys are used, the data packet can simply not be opened at all, and will be rejected before the contents can be accessed.