ANALYSIS: Taking tablet electronic flightbags to the next level

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This story is sourced from Flight International
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Soon after Apple's iPad was released in 2010, aeronautical chart manufacturers and operators quickly recognised the advantages of using lightweight, portable tablets to replace paper manuals in the cockpit. However, it was not until June 2012 that the US Federal Aviation Administration gave airlines the green light to start using tablets during all critical phases of flight as "class 1" devices, rather than having to stow them during take-off and landing.

The new rules allow tablets to be mounted in the cockpit, accessible to the pilot throughout all phases of flight without the need for a special supplemental type certificate (STC) for the mount or the device itself.

Airlines are looking ahead at future functionality of tablet-based electronic flightbags (EFB) such as the iPad, and several plan to use the devices not only to store aeronautical charts and manuals but to provide additional features such as maintenance logs and extra situational awareness on the ground. Aerospace-built class 2 and class 3 EFBs have traditionally provided this type of information, but these functions are now being integrated into class 1 portable consumer devices as well.

EVOLVING REGULATIONS

The June revisions to the use of EFBs (FAA Advisory Circular 120-76B) introduced the idea of "viewable stowage". Under a previous advisory circular released in 2003, class 1 EFBs were treated in a similar way to personal electronic devices passengers bring on board, having to be stowed during take-off and landing. Now, under the viewable stowage provision, class 1 EFBs must be tested for rapid decompression, non-interference and inspections related to lithium-ion batteries.

Out of the three types, class 1 EFBs do not connect to aircraft power or systems and are not considered a permanent installation in the aircraft. Following the viewable stowage definition, the tablet is not considered part of the aircraft itself but can still be mounted for the duration of the flight, yet at the same time it is considered a portable device that can be easily taken on and off the aircraft.

The viewable stowage concept blurs the lines between the defining characteristics of EFB classes, says Rick Ellerbrock, chief strategist at Boeing subsidiary Jeppesen Aviation, which creates electronic-based aeronautical charts for commercial airlines under the name Jeppesen Mobile FliteDeck Pro. This distinction allows airlines to use the iPad as an EFB cheaper than the other classes of EFBs, which require further integration with the aircraft.

"The whole viewable stowage concept was really a game changer, helping to lead the current explosion in tablet EFB growth," says Ellerbrock.

American Airlines is one operator harnessing the shift to viewable stowage. The carrier made its first test flight with the iPad in 2011 on the 777, and it is introducing the devices throughout the fleet as a class 1 portable EFB. The carrier says it expects to save $1.2 million per year in fuel by eliminating the weight of onboard paper manuals.

The FAA has extended American's approval to use iPad EFBs on its Boeing 737 and MD-80 fleets in addition to the 777s, says Capt David Clark, manager, flight operations efficiency and quality assurance. American is also in the middle of a line test process to approve iPad use on its 106 Boeing 757-200s, 15 767-200ERs and 58 767-300ERs, says Clark. He adds that the goal is for American's fleet to be a paperless operation "by the first of April".

For aircraft types added after the 777s, Clark says the airline can typically start a 30-day line test of the technology a day or two after submitting formal approval to the FAA. If that test goes well, the airline can receive formal "op spec" approval to operate the iPads within three to four days.

American has equipped more than 70% of its fleet with iPads across the three aircraft types. The 757 and 767 approvals are the last aircraft types in the fleet to be equipped with the tablets. Flightglobal's Ascend Online database shows the airline's fleet had 195 Boeing 737-800s, 191 MD80s, 47 777-200s and two 777-300ERs as of December 2012.

All of American's pilots have been issued with an iPad, says Clark. The airline co-ordinates with its parent AMR's certificate management office in Fort Worth, Texas to gain approval to use the devices on each aircraft type. American saw the ability to integrate the iPad without an STC as an important part of the rationale for choosing the device. "We specifically avoided the STC process for time and cost," says Clark.

Now class 1 EFBs can be within the view of pilots throughout an entire flight, new opportunities have arisen to enhance the functionality of class 1 EFBs on the ground.

The most recent update to FAA regulations addresses additional functionality for class 1 EFBs. In a proposed update entitled "change 1", the FAA outlined guidance for using class 1 and class 2 EFBs to support own-ship position at airports.

This feature acts as an additional situational awareness tool for pilots, as it allows them to see their aircraft taxi along ground routes on a map display. However, the proposed rule change does not permit operators to use own-ship position at speeds of 40kt (74km/h) or faster.

"The next thing the industry is craving is own-ship position en route," says Will Ware, EFB team leader at Southwest Airlines and US chair of the Airlines Electronic Engineering Committee/IATA users forum.

Ware says such a function would allow pilots to see weather beyond the range of its airborne radar, while noting that airlines would not use the feature for navigational purposes.

Lufthansa Systems, which also produces aeronautical charts, says it is adding functionality to its Lido/iRouteManual Pro apps for the iPad.

"We are currently developing an airport moving map for the iPad," says Stefan Auerbach, senior vice-president airline solutions at Lufthansa Systems, which is looking to introduce the feature in the next few months.

MORE FEATURES

Electronic charts made by companies such as Jeppesen, Lufthansa Systems and Canada's Navtech have been the primary documents used by pilots on tablet-based EFBs. However, some operators have long-term goals to find more ways to utilise the tablets in flight, such as using them to interact with aircraft systems or cabin and maintenance crews.

Southwest is in the first of five phases to gain approval to use iPads as EFBs, which requires submitting a letter of intent. It hopes to gain interim authorisation to start testing an initial deployment in the second quarter of 2013.

Southwest has been using an onboard performance computer since 1997, which functions as a class 1 EFB, but is looking to save weight by using an iPad rather than heavy documents and manuals. The airline is creating a business case to deploy iPads to replace its airside bag system, which includes navigation charts as well as company manuals and weather applications. Unlike the onboard performance computer, which stores take-off and landing data and does not have any manuals, the tablet would allow the airline to eliminate paper and the need to send paper revisions to thousands of pilots.

Ware says a long-term desire would be to use the iPad to integrate data between airline departments. For example, cabin crew sending electronic logs to the maintenance department in the event of an onboard issue.

Southwest expects an early second-quarter deployment of iPads for at least 150 pilots, rising by increments of 150 until all its roughly 7,000 pilots are all using the device by the second quarter of 2014, creating a paperless environment throughout its fleet.

The Dallas-based low-cost carrier plans to adopt a strategy where each pilot furnishes their own iPad, accessing secure corporate content in addition to other applications for day-to-day use. Southwest has chosen the iPad for the first deployment of tablets during the first few years of the programme. However, it is open to evaluating other types in the future when the technology needs refreshing.

American Airlines is also interested in using iPad EFBs in other sectors of the company. Clark says the "next phase of pursuit" after going paperless would be to connect the EFBs via a satellite link. "We are very close to some solutions with regard to connectivity," Clark says. Some of that information would include real-time weather data, connecting information, gate information and schedule changes, he adds.

As the number of connected aircraft increases, so will the ability for airlines to transfer more data, Auerbach says. "Once the satellite and also the earth-to-ground to aircraft communication infrastructure is being established, you'll see a lot more exchange of information from ground to cockpit," he says.

Avionics & Systems Integration Group (ASIG) is one provider already integrating real-time flight data into iPads, expanding the use of the EFB beyond a tool simply for storing manuals and documents. For airlines interested in adding more data, the flyTab class 2 EFB provides more functionality than a traditional class I device because it is certificated to connect to aircraft systems.

STREAMED INFORMATION

When connected to the aircraft, flyTab can load streamed information from aircraft systems and sensors. Data that can be streamed to apps on the EFB include that from ARINC 429, RS-232, RS-422 and RS-485 buses. Discrete data is also supported.

Managing director Luke Ribich says ASIG is on track to achieve an STC for the Boeing 767 and Bombardier's CRJ and Dash-8 by the end of the first quarter of 2013.

The flyTab system is designed to provide operators with a customised platform of features, says Ribich. For example, flyTab could allow an operator to send systems and sensor data from a bus to flight operations quality assurance or flight data monitoring managers easily via an interface module that provides the data for the iOS apps on the iPad.

The flyTab product includes the certification, mounts, software developer kit and data in one package. It is powered by a conditioning module, with data streamed through an interface module.

Wi-fi in the cabin would allow more functionality but is limited by current regulations, says Ribich. "We hope to see the regulatory environment relax at some point in the future," he adds.

Additional flyTab applications could include other real-time data such as own-ship position and GPS data such as position, altitude, ground speed and destination tailored to each operator. ASIG says installing the EFB system on each aircraft can cost $5,000 to $20,000, depending on selected features.

Beyond saving paper, airlines could also find improvements via operational initiatives such as reducing pilot workloads through electronically sending flightplans and analysing safety data to reduce hard landings and unstable approaches.

While the uptake of iPads is strong, some airlines are still going down the route of non-tablet EFBs in the cockpit.

Cathay Pacific is using tablets as part of Arinc's "e-enabled" cabin solution, but not in the cockpit. Instead, cabin crew are using the tablets for tech logs and real-time in-flight credit card authorisation. Along with charts from Navtech, the enabled system includes a feature called GateFusion, which transfers large documents and manuals while the aircraft is parked at the gate.

The airline has also integrated its communications systems. "If you look at technology for the cockpit, we're finding that traditional EFBs, or derivatives of them, are still our best fit for the cockpit," says Dan Pendergast, senior director of Arinc's international division.

He explains that because of the EFB's connectivity with aircraft systems, Arinc has found that aerospace-built EFBs provide a way to more easily integrate applications "without having to go through consumer channels".

However, Pendergast adds, that "doesn't mean a tablet at some point in the near future won't be a really good fit".