Connecting the aviation ecosystem

In aviation, data is everywhere.

It comes from passengers tapping their phones to book flights, choose seats and check in. It comes from radars watching the weather and transponders telling air traffic controllers which plane is which. It comes from all over the aircraft, with systems and subsystems creating a detailed digital record of the flight – when the brakes come off, when the wheels come up, even every time an engine valve opens or closes.


Within those billions upon billions of data points, Raytheon Technologies experts say, are patterns, trend lines and prognostics with untapped and extraordinary value – and a key to the future of aviation.

 

Bringing that information together, analyzing it and delivering the insights to the right people at the right time is a concept Raytheon Technologies calls the “connected aviation ecosystem,” and the result, experts say, will be greater efficiency and smoother operations across the industry.

 

“We’ve got a lot of independent systems deployed throughout our aviation footprint that don’t talk to each other today,” said LeAnn Ridgeway, who is leading the connected aviation ecosystem effort at Collins Aerospace, a Raytheon Technologies business. “We believe that by working with our customers, we can fuse various data sources and apply smart analytics that will provide value for our customers in terms of operational efficiency and the ability to offer an enhanced passenger experience. This really sets us apart.”

 

Here are some of the ways Ridgeway and her colleagues across the company are working to bring the connected aviation ecosystem to life – and why they believe it is so important to the future of flight.

 

Passenger experience

Collins Aerospace has deployed its ARINC SelfPass biometrics system at Tokyo Haneda Airport. The system is among many ways data can make air travel more seamless and convenient.

For passengers, a connected aviation ecosystem would streamline their travel experience.

The changes would be the most noticeable when passengers arrive at the airport. Biometric technology would allow them to use their facial scan or fingerprint to check in, pass through security and board the plane without having to present an ID. The underlying technology for that feature is already in use; Collins Aerospace recently deployed its ARINC SelfPass biometrics system at airports including Tokyo Haneda Airport.

Just like retailers use consumer data to boost sales and improve the customer experience – suggesting purchases, simplifying checkout, even pre-stocking inventory to speed up shipping – airlines and airports could similarly streamline every step of a passenger’s journey.

“We can use data to provide a more personalized experience – one that’s more seamless,” said Nancy Welsh, director of marketing for Information Management Services at Collins Aerospace.

The benefits of better data analysis extend beyond check-in and boarding. At airports, for example, it could direct passengers to alternate security checkpoints if one is becoming too crowded. Vendors in the food court could predict demand and plan accordingly; if a fast-food chain knows it has an unusually high number of frequent customers coming in at a certain time, the manager could schedule a second cashier and stock more of the items those customers are likely to order.

On the plane, the same apps passengers used to book their flights could allow them to purchase seat upgrades, order drinks and meals, shop for duty-free items and access in-flight entertainment. Passengers could even reserve a spot in line to use the restroom, then get a notification when it’s their turn.

When cabin crews have real-time access to that data – as they do, for example, with a Collins product called CabinConnect – it allows them to better serve their customers. Knowing which types of meals, drinks and entertainment their passengers prefer not only makes the trip more enjoyable, it also helps manage inventory and the restocking of planes between flights. That, in turn, improves efficiency and reduces delays.

On the ground, the passenger apps could provide a map of the terminal and show the fastest path to baggage claim, a connecting flight or ground transportation.

“All of those things are in the realm of the possible, and an airline – or airport – could tailor that experience to their passengers,” Welsh said.

All that information needs a way to get from the air to the ground and back. Collins has more than 90 years of experience in that realm, beginning with voice communications via VHF and HF radios and evolving to a full portfolio of high-speed communications pathways. Today, through the ARINC Global Network – which routes more than 75 million messages a day between aircraft, airline operators, air traffic controllers and ancillary businesses like fuel providers, caterers and ground handlers – Collins is not only moving the data but helping customers figure out what it means and how to act on it.

“Newer-generation aircraft are generating more data than ever before,” Welsh said. “We’re helping airlines harness that data and turn it into information that can increase efficiency, improve operations and enhance the passenger experience.”

To that end, Collins is investing in hardware, services and applications in five areas:

    Cabin and cargo operations.

    Flight operations and maintenance data.

    Electronic flight bag, or the digital version of pilots’ flight management documents.

    Media delivery, or the updating of navigation database files.

    Prevention of delays and cancellations, sometimes known as “irregular operations.”

 

Better use of data could allow for greater management of air traffic – even in the face of something as uncontrollable as the weather.

 

Air traffic management

Analyzing air traffic control data will play an important role in what's known as "four-dimensional trajectory," or 4DT, which will allow air traffic controllers to manage flights based on where they will be at a certain time – not just where they are at the moment.

The plane sat on the tarmac in Washington, D.C., for three hours, waiting for the weather to clear. Not there, and not in its destination of Chicago, but 180 miles to the southeast in Indianapolis.

Every time Kip Spurio hears that kind of story – his daughter-in-law was on the flight – it reminds him why he and his colleagues are working on a way to make long, frustrating weather delays a thing of the past – or at least far less common.

It’s called four-dimensional trajectory, and its widespread use would fundamentally change the way air traffic management works, according to Spurio, the technical director of air traffic systems for Raytheon Intelligence & Space, a Raytheon Technologies business.

Right now, air traffic controllers use a plane’s real-time altitude, longitude and latitude to keep it a safe distance from bad weather, and from other aircraft. With four-dimensional trajectory, also called 4DT, they’ll add the dimension of time into those calculations – enabling them to separate aircraft based not just on where they are, but on where they will be at any point in their flight.

Four-dimensional trajectory, Spurio said, would improve decision-making at places like the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Warrenton, Virginia, where controllers manage the strategic flow of thousands of flights across the U.S. National Airspace System. They monitor and respond to changes in capacity, such as runway closures; airspace restrictions such as an Air Force One flight; equipment outages on the ground, and, of course, weather.

“They have to have all the information – what airports are available, what the landing rate at Chicago is. They have to know all that. But because their systems aren’t set up to do things based on a four-dimensional trajectory, their remedies to problems in the system are fairly coarse,” Spurio said.

That, Spurio said, is why his daughter-in-law’s plane sat on the ground for so long. Without knowing exactly when the plane would reach the weather over Indianapolis, and where the bad weather would be at that time, air traffic control simply kept it on the ground in D.C. until the storm cleared.

“In the future, you should be able to take off from Washington just in time so that the weather is just leaving Indianapolis when you get there,” he said.

Machine learning will be a key factor in bringing four-dimensional trajectory into practice, as will the update of flight-management systems, training for pilots, and the pending overhaul of the FAA’s telecommunications systems. That initiative, known as the FAA Enterprise Network Services Program, or FENS, will replace a 20-year-old system with a commercial-style infrastructure built for handling, analyzing and sharing large volumes of data.

Raytheon Intelligence & Space and Collins Aerospace are teaming to pursue the contract. Raytheon Intelligence & Space has expertise in integrating networks of similar size and importance – namely the GPS Next-Generation Operational Control System and the Joint Polar Satellite System Common Ground System. Collins is the largest private network provider in aviation.

The businesses are also collaborating on air traffic management technologies that will optimize routing, enable more efficient use of the airspace and make air traffic management operations more resilient with greater redundancy. Those technologies will draw on Collins' expertise in airborne weather radar, route optimization and collision avoidance, and Raytheon Intelligence & Space's deep knowledge of ground-based air traffic management systems.

Among those initiatives: Collins will incorporate elements of its Airborne Collision Avoidance Systems to enhance the capabilities of Raytheon Intelligence & Space's Ground Based Detect and Avoid system.

 

Predictive maintenance

Data from aircraft systems such as engines can help airline operators predict when their fleet will require maintenance and schedule that maintenance to happen at the best possible times and places.

Car owners know the routine well: you drop your vehicle off for an oil change, then a few hours later, you get a call. The timing belt’s shot. The brake pads are worn. The alternator’s about to go. Fixing it will take a day or two and cost at least a few hundred dollars.

Those same types of calls happen in aviation, only with much higher stakes. One way to minimize them is through predictive maintenance – and one way to predict maintenance is through analysis of engine data.

At Pratt & Whitney, a Raytheon Technologies business, that work falls under the purview of Arun Srinivasan, who leads strategic planning for engine health digital services supporting commercial engines. One of his main duties is to show customers how analyzing data from the assortment of sensors on an engine – Pratt & Whitney’s GTF engine, for example, can generate 4 million data points per flight – can tell them days in advance when they’ll need to fix or replace a part. That kind of notice allows for better planning; operators can even schedule those repairs in the best locations – a major airport with a hangar and plenty of mechanics, rather than a remote outpost.

“Pratt & Whitney prides itself on designing and manufacturing ‘Dependable Engines.’ My team plays a role in supporting that dependability,” Srinivasan said. “My goal is to ensure engines are ready so that pilots and passengers have a good flight. We aim to minimize operational disruptions and avoid announcements such as, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to have a delay because something’s gone wrong.’”

The data can come from throughout the flight, or from certain phases – and in either case, it helps paint a strong digital picture of the engine’s health. That picture will become even clearer and more useful in optimizing operations as more data is unlocked from engines, and as adoption grows of technologies such as Pratt & Whitney’s Advanced Diagnostics and Engine Monitoring data analytics platform.

“I aim to avoid inconvenient surprises and provide ample planning time,” Srinivasan said. “Significant notification. Really predictive.”

Similar to the work Pratt is doing with engines, Collins Aerospace is using its Ascentia platform to predict maintenance needs across the aircraft. Through statistical analysis, machine learning and modeling, the Ascentia platform analyzes flight operations and maintenance data, predicts the health of the aircraft and its Collins-made components, and prescribes the best course of action for everything it monitors.

Collins data scientists and product engineers then deliver those recommendations and insights to customers, validating the information and helping plan the next steps.

“Turning unscheduled maintenance into scheduled maintenance increases the efficiency of systems and products, and it extends the lifecycle of components,” said Peter Conrardy, senior director of Integrated Digital Solutions for Collins Aerospace. “That helps the customer to avoid irregular operations and disruptions in service, and it helps us learn too. When we can feed this knowledge back into our product design, and pair it with our FlightSense maintenance services, we can ensure our products continue to improve and deliver increased value for our customers.”

 

Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity experts at Raytheon Technologies are collaborating to protect the data and the networks that underpin the aviation ecosystem.

Underneath all that data analysis and optimization is a lattice of networks and nodes that transmit, receive and store information. As those networks become more complex and interconnected, the risk of a cyber intruder finding new places and opportunities to strike increases.

To that end, Raytheon Technologies’ experts are working to bring greater cybersecurity in aviation in three ways: by embedding it throughout the development and lifecycle of products and services; by independently testing and analyzing the products and services their colleagues create; and by collaborating across the industry to develop long-term, big-picture standards and guidance.

“If you think about security, it’s layered. There are many protection levels,” said Linda Peyton, who oversees cybersecurity of products at Collins Aerospace. Part of her role is to collaborate with colleagues at the company’s Cyber Operations, Development and Evaluation (CODE) Center, a cybersecurity test range where in-house experts analyze what teams across the company create.

“We tear into and security pressure-test everything from jet engines and avionics to components supporting missiles and satellites,” said Brian Witten, a Raytheon Technologies vice president, chief product security officer and the head of the CODE Center.

The CODE Center team provides a valuable service, Peyton said – an analysis free of any prior attachment to the product or service they’re evaluating.

“They become those independent eyes that can go in and independently assess things,” she said. “The interesting thing is, because they’re not embedded in all the day-to-day design and development activities, they come in with a totally unbiased view.”

But there’s more to cybersecuring aviation systems than combing through lines of code, picking apart products and locking them away in echo-proof chambers for radio-frequency testing. There’s also significant work under way to create the standards and practices that guide the industry. On that front, Collins has taken a leadership role in organizations that produce such standards and guidance. They include the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, the International Air Transport Association and the Aviation Information Sharing and Analysis Center.

“Protecting the flying public and flight operations is far more than just protecting the components embedded in each aircraft,” Witten said. “That’s why we, our partners and so much of the industry are working together to not only protect the aircraft and their components, but also the ground support equipment and global networks connecting the aircraft to airlines and air traffic control around the world.”