Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Airline Economics: The App Economy for Commercial Aviation (or So, we have this tablet thing, now what?)

The App Economy

Since the advent of the iPhone in 2007 and its associated Software Development Kit (SDK) in 2008, a major technology trend disrupting businesses in almost every industry (and consumer behavior around the globe) has been the introduction of an entire new category of mobile software applications (Apps). This step change in the how/where/when of software usage and the purchase process surrounding app acquisition has been referred to as the “App Economy”. 

As a reader of this blog, you may well be holding a platform for the App Economy in your hand right now.  iOS, Android and Windows Phone devices are busy displacing existing laptop and web-based applications all across the economy and delivery of content to users (whether written like this blog or in audio/visual form as for music and movies) are prime activities being displaced.

Tablet-based EFB Applications as part of the app economy

In the aviation industry, there are several cockpit activities that are ripe for disruption under the content delivery model.  Anything currently paper-based in the cockpit is a prime candidate for displacement since every scrap of paper that can be removed from an aircraft and replaced with electrons represents a potential weight and fuel savings on every flight.  The economic benefits of this are clear and enormous and accordingly the industry is, at its own deliberate pace, moving to displace paper operating documentation, charts, weather briefings, check lists and the other paper contents of a pilot’s flight bag with a suite of applications running on a mobile device and using downloaded data from the cloud, thereby creating an “Electronic Flight Bag” or EFB.

Tablets as sensor platforms

EFB’s in the form of paper replacements however, neglect one of the most important features of this generation of mobile platforms  - their capability as an integrated sensor platform. Think about it, the reason that consumers everywhere have discarded Blackberries or WinCE devices is not that they suddenly became incapable of displaying emails or of surfing the web, but that newer devices offered easier access to a collection of sensors thereby enabling applications that the older devices simply couldn’t match.  Geolocation (GPS and Bluetooth LE), photography (camera sensors), gaming (accelerometers), music recognition (microphones), and a host of other activities suddenly became available to creative app developers along with a simple distribution mechanism that was guaranteed to reach a wide audience. The explosion of available apps that resulted has enormous meaning for aviation - because from the point of view of an app developer, an aircraft is the most incredible sensor platform going.

Tablets as sensor platforms for aircraft

From an app developer's point of view, an aircraft positively bristles with incredibly accurate and reliable sensors that can provide everything from the orientation, position and speed of the aircraft to, as we jokingly say around our office, the temperature of the coffee pot in the galley - plus everything in between.  Radio antennae and radar pick up everything from position of other aircraft to the current images of ground based weather radar. The sensors for all of this already exist on the aircraft, but attaching them to a tablet accomplishes something completely new - huge amounts of data that currently resides in the “cloud” can now be moved onto the aircraft via a mobile device and that data can be integrated with real-time data from the sensors of the aircraft to create completely new applications.  You can imagine easy-to-use suggestive rerouting apps that display weather, flight restrictions and other aircraft in the context of a moving map as just a first example, many more are waiting to be developed.  All that is necessary is a platform which meets regulatory scrutiny and which can listen to the aircraft’s sensors plus  a way for applications to access that system.

Enhancing existing Tablet-based EFB applications with sensor data

One quick hit for improving the existing EFB tablet application experience would be to integrate GPS data from the aircraft itself with current systems.  By accomplishing this benign but technically challenging feat, charting applications can now suddenly provide moving maps with chart centering and track-up display from qualified sensors. Airport moving map display becomes just a basic map-overlay feature. 
It turns out that all of the major tablet platforms provide the ability to do just this when aircraft originating GPS data is fed into them via an external port.  All of the major charting vendors take advantage of this ability - all that’s needed is a way to connect the tablet to FAR Part 25 aircraft in a way that is reliable, latency free and secure.

New applications centered around sensor data

Even better than simply enabling moving maps is the ability to create a whole new classes of applications that improve situational awareness and operational efficiency through enhanced alerting and augmented reality. Today’s “aircraft-aware” applications allow checklist fields to be completed automatically by obtaining and presenting visual statuses of onboard systems and sensors from discrete and numeric data outputs.  G-forces and turbulence are able to be measured and recorded continuously in flight from aircraft accelerometer and gyroscopic data.  Soon, route planning will be automated to a much greater extent as flight and mission planners convey flight plans to pilots in a single digital file, capable of being “burst tuned” or data loaded to aircraft flight management systems.  Enormous amounts of paperwork are becoming electronic, charts and plates are merely the obvious start of this process.  The possibilities for cost savings, reduced crew work load and improved customer service can then go far beyond simply removing the weight of paper from the aircraft.

Economics of sensor-centered applications

Sensor-based applications such as those we are discussing present a very interesting cost analysis.  Unlike existing technology, tablet based EFB deployments, centered upon comparatively low cost and ubiquitous platforms such as the Apple iPad, when coupled with an aircraft integration such as the flyTab system, support a wide array of applications which can be rapidly developed and deployed at very low cost.  Customization for specific needs becomes much more affordable. 

The flight operations and aircraft performance and airworthiness data that become easily and cost effectively accessible and distributable from an aircraft-aware tablet platform poses real challenges for traditional accounting methods used by airlines.  Since the cost savings of an app walks on and off the plane with the pilot, how does one amortize cost of the enabling on-aircraft platform against all of the apps which may be deployed to the aircraft/fleet, many of which have not even been written yet. Traditional accounting analyses are based on fuel or labor savings without consideration of such future opportunities, i.e. those analyses are a trap which precludes operators from achieving efficiencies unless they can look past an initial cost and imagine a different future. 
It may help financial managers to see the future if they also realize that, by a pilot walking on to the aircraft and “docking” his/her tablet EFB equipped with those apps that best support corporate enterprise continuing analysis and surveillance systems, finance will gain access to data for CASS, FDM, and FOQA trend and cost analysis without the need for additional manpower and without the risk of human induced errors that they have grappled with in the past.

Risks of such applications

That last item regarding deployment bears some analysis.  The App Economy described in herein is sui generis in the aviation industry.  Care must be taken to ensure the security of the app and its connection to the aircraft, the security of the tablet itself and the appropriateness of the app for use in a cockpit.  It is incumbent upon hardware/software developers to meet the rigors of commercial aviation standards in both design and function, as well as regulators in ensuring the efficacy, reliability and domain security of these systems from traditional threats associated with the digital landscape.  Nevertheless, time marches on and as these regulatory and operation hurdles are cleared and their technology adopted by CAA’s worldwide, the use of mobile platforms to enhance benefits and cost savings of through applications development are compelling for everyone in the industry.

If your flight operations or finance departments are looking for effective cost justification strategies to aid in the implementation of tablet based EFB solutions, contact ASIG's system integration team or visit us online at www.asigllc.com.  We welcome the opportunity to discuss your Class 2 EFB integration efforts; and, are likely to have STC'd installation solutions for your tablet EFB program that may defer, or all together eliminate, any related certification costs.

Until next time, stay 5x5, mission ready and Wired!