June 2015

The lifeblood of aviation’s information age is information itself: the massive volume of data carrying everything from passenger reservations to critical flight instructions to maintenance records. To ensure that information is accessible across the entire aviation community, our industry requires a network that is secure, reliable and resilient.

As we think about the future of Rockwell Collins’ global network, we’ve identified four key principles that will help the industry achieve maximum benefit from the network today and identify how best to invest in tomorrow.

Principle 1: Match the right data to the right channel

The global aviation network is composed of numerous communications conduits, both airborne and ground based. The challenge is to match the right data to the right channel in order to maximize efficiency and minimize cost.

For instance, on a single transoceanic flight, pilots may send data to air traffic control via VHF (very high frequency) when over land soon after takeoff, while later, the crew might receive updated weather information through HF (high frequency), and engine operating parameters might be transmitted automatically to an airline maintenance base via Iridium satellites. All while an executive in business class is remotely editing a presentation via SwiftBroadband.

The route that each of these messages takes is driven by cost, availability and security. Safety service data-link messages sent over land masses are best suited to an ultra-secure connection like VHF. Over oceans and polar routes, HF is the most reliable alternative for continuous contact, with global satellite constellations like Iridium and Inmarsat’s Classic Aero also options.

These channels continue to evolve. Next-generation digital VHF is an essential component in the FAA’s NextGen® initiative. Called VHF data link (VDL), it is more robust, faster and has higher capacity than its analog counterpart. This new technology signals a transition from a voice-reliant air traffic control system to a digital model designed to exchange text messages between ground-based controllers, the flight deck and other aircraft. Likewise, HF ground stations are transitioning to digital technology and data communications. The voiceless system will enhance safety, increase efficiency and reduce pilot/controller workload.

The next generation of ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System), called ACARS over IP, is designed to utilize higher-speed broadband channels, allowing support of the iPad® and other smart devices. This creates the opportunity to connect Internet-enabled devices to cockpit avionics in order to efficiently update navigation databases and transfer flight plans. In June 2015, Rockwell Collins announced that it is working with the FAA and Hawaiian Airlines to evaluate the use of Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband to transfer ACARS data messages for safety services, as well as electronic flight bag updates and airline operations communications.

These advancing technologies and applications signal an important evolution in the global network. As an industry, we will need to continue to calculate the proper balance of security, bandwidth, efficiency and cost to stay connected in every phase of flight.

We will need to balance security, bandwidth, efficiency and cost to stay connected in every phase of flight.

Principle 2: Interoperability matters

Today’s aviation ecosphere – from aircraft and airlines to airports and agencies – is built upon myriad systems of different complexities and ages. And whether they’re used to control passenger flow at an airport, manage flight delays through airport operations or maintain security and border data delivery, each system can utilize different protocols and transport mechanisms.

This makes interoperability between systems and applications – as well as the secure transmission of operational and business-critical messages – an essential component of networks, today and in the future. Regardless of the message format, network protocol or access technology that each aviation partner uses, the network must seamlessly facilitate communication with airlines and aviation partners. All this must be done with a focus on availability, reliability and data integrity.

Principle 3: Make the best use of data

Consider that a single Boeing 787 Dreamliner on a single round-trip international flight generates a terabyte of data. The sheer volume is enormous, and it will only continue to grow as new communications technologies, greater transmission speeds and increasing demands for information develop. Making the best use of data means finding new ways to enhance its value and delivering it to the right people at the right time.

For example, ACARS is useful for far more than merely position reporting. The system can transmit a constant stream of performance data, including reports on engines and components that will yield significant maintenance, time- and cost-saving advantages.

It also can be used for positioning assistance. The tragic loss of MH370 last year reinforced that even in this age of rapidly advancing technology, we could still lose track of an airliner. In response, Rockwell Collins and others introduced solutions that tap into a variety of data sources to locate aircraft. Rockwell Collins’ ARINC MultiLink™ flight tracking services combine ACARS, ADS-B and -C, high-frequency data link and other data resources to reliably monitor the location of an aircraft anywhere in the world.

Data can also improve efficiencies, which impact customer satisfaction – and the bottom line. Consider the challenge of matching airport ground systems and staff with the variability of air travel. If a plane lands before ground staff is ready for it, passengers and crew are stuck waiting on the tarmac; it if shows up late, then staff sits idle, driving up costs. By delivering and integrating ACARS and IATA messaging data into airport systems and applications to dynamically manage these assets, airports and airlines can achieve significant cost savings.

Principle 4: Peace of mind is paramount

As systems become increasingly interconnected, interdependent cyber security has become a growing concern in civil aviation. Network security threats are diverse and persistent; a large part of the data that traverses private aviation networks is sensitive and relates to passengers’ reservations.

In this environment, security is essential. Today, private aviation networks like those from Rockwell Collins are outfitted with multiple firewalls and security mechanisms to ensure that the security of critical communications is airtight, and that policies and protections align with IATA security rules and mandates.

As we explore new channels of communication to meet the needs of the information age, we must ensure that they can support those same levels of security at every moment of transmission. But peace of mind goes beyond ensuring messages are protected at every point of transmission – it’s also about ensuring the information arrives at its intended destination in a timely manner. Even as our industry embraces new technology like ACARS over IP and standardized, web-based applications like XML Web Services, we believe the curation of message delivery is a critical component of information management – knowing exactly where a message is at any given moment, and if something goes wrong, where that error occurred and what backups are available to ensure the message arrives at its destination.

Conclusion

In aviation’s information age, an ever-increasing volume of data streams across the sky and around the earth. Developing faster ways to transmit, store, process and access that information – leveraging the latest ground- and satellite-based communications technologies – will be necessary to ensure our industry can take full advantage of the opportunities ahead.

Posted by Rockwell Collins