By: Brendan Gallagher
Earlier this year, Cathay Pacific demonstrated live credit-card authorisation via satellite, using an electronic flight bag semi-permanently installed at a cabin crew station as part of the communications chain.
The airline is hopeful the successful trial will open the door to a big increase in revenue-spinning in-flight sales. But as applications go, it was a very far cry from what the pioneers of the electronic flight bag had in mind when they floated the idea more than a decade ago.
That is still part of the remit for these tablet PC-style devices, but the iron demands of the business case meant that EFB enthusiasts had to find a true killer app to kick-start the market. They may have found it in the new air traffic management systems beginning to take shape on either side of the Atlantic.
The EFB is a "natural platform" for the advanced functionalities being tested in preparation for the Federal Aviation Administration's NextGen air traffic management system, says Jim Schmitz, director of business development for Goodrich's cockpit data management product line. "In our view of the world - and it's one that the airlines are moving to as well - EFBs are more affordable than a primary flight display when it comes to delivering those ADS-B-based functionalities," he says.
He is echoed by Bill Ruhl, regional marketing manager and former EFB programme chief at Astronautics: "The aircraft manufacturers say they can put all that information on a front display on new aircraft like the [Airbus] A350 and [Boeing] 787. But what do you do with all the other aircraft - the A340s, 747s and the rest? You can't afford to change all those front displays. The EFB offers an economical way to display NextGen information."
US companies Goodrich and Astronautics are among the five leading suppliers of EFB hardware. The others are CMC Electronics of Canada, Swedish-headquartered NavAero and Teledyne Controls of California. NavAero makes the top table by virtue of its very large in-service base of Class 2 - semi-permanently installed - units, the others through their focus on the Class 3 equipment finding its way into permanent installations on the flightdecks of many of the world's big airlines.
The Goodrich EFB of five years ago boasted a growing range of applications that included Jeppesen-supplied terminal charts and airport and en route moving maps - the emphasis was on the paperless cockpit. It won the custom of Emirates and Lufthansa, which are completing fleet retrofits. But now two US carriers are poised to use Goodrich's latest-generation SmartDisplay cockpit data management system to show where the EFB is going next.
The two carriers will use Goodrich hardware for cockpit display of traffic information (CDTI). Supplemental type certification of the Class 3 equipment on the Airbus A330 is set for the first quarter of next year, with the Boeing 747-400 to follow in the second quarter. US Airways plans to equip all its A330s and to test the delegated-separation and merging-and-spacing functions of the SafeRoute suite of applications from ACSS, the Arizona-based joint venture between Thales and L-3 Communications. Applications must also be certificated. This has already been achieved for SafeRoute in the course of a Boeing 757/767 trial by UPS.
United, meanwhile, plans to try out a Honeywell-developed in-trail procedure - designed to make it easier for aircraft to exploit favourable winds by changing flight level in oceanic track systems - with 12 Boeing 747-400s flying in the South Pacific.
Initially, the US Airways and United equipment will run only these safety-critical (Type C) applications. But Goodrich plans to offer an upgrade that will allow them to simultaneously support Type A (documents) and B (charts, weight-and-balance and performance calculations, flightplans, electronic checklists). While the latter can run under a Microsoft Windows operating system, Type C applications demand an FAA-certificated operating system.
From the first quarter of 2012, Goodrich will offer the ability to run Type A, B and C applications concurrently on the same platform, says Schmitz. "Right now we can do either Windows or the certificated applications," he adds. "From 2012 we'll have a dual-partition architecture that can run both types at the same time. It will incorporate a certificated operating system that is also used by another major avionics manufacturer."
Schmitz believes that "airlines have always liked the flexibility of a Windows-based operating system that allows them to develop and maintain their own applications". These could include charting, documents and tech logs. "Now they are seeing significant benefits in NextGen," he says. "With our dual-use technology they can get double duty out of the EFB - they will have access to control the Windows-based applications, while the safety-critical apps will remain in a secure environment."
Astronautics also offers dual-use, with a two-processor system that is standard on the Boeing 787 and an option on the rest of the manufacturer's range. It is also developing Nexis, which will be capable of hosting certificated and uncertificated applications on a single processor.
The Milwaukee-based company's line of applications includes the CDTI application used on the UPS 757s and 767s, an airport moving map with optional display of other airport traffic, an in-trail procedure to be used in North Atlantic trials conducted by the European Aviation Safety Agency, and a document reader.
Astronautics is also working with third parties on a tech log and on en route maps with own ship's position. The latter exemplifies the lengths vendors must go to obtain approval for Type C applications. "The app itself has to be certificated to the FAA's DO-178B Level C standard for software, the same as an FMS [flight management system]," Ruhl explains. "That calls for a similarly compliant operating system, which eliminates Windows because Microsoft would never provide the source code. So we based ours on Linux freeware, and even then it took us about a year and a half to repurpose it and prove to the FAA that it would never generate erroneous indications."
Type C applications also have to go through the airworthiness authorities' supplemental type certification process, Ruhl points out. "You have to get an STC just as if it were new hardware. The things you have to do to certificate a nav display, you also have to do with this kind of app."
CMC Electronics' PilotView Class 2 EFB has won wide market acceptance in business aviation, chalking up STCs and line-fit positions with Bombardier, Dassault, Embraer and Gulfstream. In air transport it is offered as a standard option by ATR, Bombardier (for its CRJ700/900/1000) and Embraer (on its 170/190), and by Boeing in a Class 3 installation on new Next Generation 737s.
"There is an emerging trend towards Class 2 installations with growth capability to support Type C applications," says Jean-Marie Bégis, the company's director of EFB products. "PilotView can be used as installed equipment in line with Class 3 requirements or introduced into the cockpit via provisions."
PilotView applications include Jeppesen and Lufthansa Systems charting, weather information via XM, Sirius and Iridium satellites, display of security camera and enhanced vision system imagery, and airport CDTI supported by ACSS SafeRoute.
If CMC dominates the business aviation EFB market, NavAero is top in the airline Class 2 world with a Windows, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS)-based offering. The company holds EASA STCs for its t-BagC2² EFB in the Boeing 737 Classic and NG, Airbus A320 family and A300/A310, and Boeing MD-80 series; the FAA equivalent for the Boeing 757 and 767; and Transport Canada clearance for the E-170 and E-190.
Teledyne Controls was among the EFB pioneers: it helped draft the FAA's key advisory circular, AC-120-76A, and began supplying Class 1 equipment to FedEx Express in the mid-1990s. In 2004 the company was chosen by as sole source for the Onboard Informational Terminal, Airbus's Class 3 EFB, and last year the decision was made to focus its activities exclusively on this programme. "We also offer this as a standalone product to carriers looking for an avionics-grade EFB in preference to a typically COTS Class 2," says US sales and service manager Scott Chambers. "And we have a wireless solution for users who want to move away from manual updating of EFBs via memory stick, portable data loader or other physical medium."
Teledyne has an array of applications specifically designed for modern touchscreen environments and capable of running on its own hardware and that of competitors. They include Flight Manager, which confers a common look and feel on all applications; document, form, map, and graphical weather viewers; take-off and landing performance calculations; weight and balance, communications and tech log.
"The most overlooked aspect of EFB integration is how to manage all these pieces and their associated updates," says Chambers. "So on the ground we have our LRU Configuration Manager, which gives the airline a user interface with which to manage EFB software and data for each tail number and fleet. It can be used to distribute software and data in real time or through an integrated scheduler to minimise network traffic peaks."
Teledyne has over a dozen customers for its applications - the most recent is Turkish charter operator Freebird Airlines, which earlier this year selected LRU Configuration Manager and a suite of apps for use with its Airbus A320s and A321s. The California-based company also has half a dozen customers for its EFB hardware.
Schmitz is confident that the EFB market, under the impulsion of the advanced ATM applications, is poised to start attaining its full proportions. "Five to 10 years ago this was an emerging technology," he says. "There were issues among the early adopters. But I think they have been worked through."
However, there are still potential stumbling blocks to be overcome, according to another provider. "I think there's work to be done in three areas," says Ken Crowhurst, senior vice-president Americas for NavAero. "They have to do with battery power, information management, and installation efficiency."
The use of lithium-ion batteries in EFB systems is under regulatory scrutiny. "We have moved to nickel-metal hydride to eliminate issues surrounding lithium-ion," Crowhurst says. "But the final determination will come from the regulatory agencies. We urge the airlines to involve themselves with the Arinc EFB Users Forum, which is formulating an industry response to the FAA's pending policy draft."
Crowhurst shares Chambers' view of the scale of the task of delivering and managing EFB data. "The EFB is effectively a new computing infrastructure on the aircraft," he says. "To be fully effective, a programme must be viewed as an end-to-end information management solution, with the unit itself treated as a client within the airline's IT environment."
While Class 3 systems are likely to be standard on new-build aircraft, many thousands of in-service aircraft will need to be retrofitted. "Aircraft downtime is critical," says Crowhurst. "If an installation calls for protracted downtime, full-fleet deployment and achievement of return on investment will be delayed. The answer lies in the development of simpler, time-efficient installations that can be carried out in a sequence of overnight stops."
They may differ in detail, but vendors have a common faith the EFB market is on the up. "It's starting to develop real momentum," says Astronautics' Ruhl. "The key is for the operators to develop a company approach - back office, IT, engineering, maintenance and operations - aimed at obtaining a return on investment."
As for applications, the new ATM environment will prove decisive, he believes. "We think that in the long term a comprehensive return on investment will require a Class 3 system that can support the NextGen certificated applications: merging and spacing, airport moving map with other airport traffic, in-trail procedure, operations to closely spaced parallel runways, and all the other new procedures that will emerge over the next decade."
Airbus and Boeing approaches to electronic flight bags