Finding hidden patterns, trends and correlations is the ultimate goal of big data analytics, especially in aerospace where safety is paramount and utilization is king. Are we there yet?
Big data and analytics has had a tremendous impact on operations across the aero sector. Initially driven by OEMs and engine manufacturers, reliance on big data continues to expand, with airlines relying more on the data for operational improvements and seeking to deliver real-time insights to the cockpit. As the amount of data generated grow, organizations are looking for faster access to that information and seeking ways to garner additional insights, including helping airlines recover more quickly from the impact of Covid-19-related slowdowns.
“The solutions have started penetrating the aero sector more,” said Shivaprakash Muruganandham, an analyst with NSR. “It started with widebody airframes, but now it is spreading into small body airframes. Data sizes are growing. Now we are seeing the future, and other data will be included and will be analyzed for better performance of aircraft and airlines operations.”
In his role as director of analytics at Boeing Global Services, Stefan Karisch focuses on Boeing’s long-term vision, along with important uses for data analytics in today’s environment. “For the last 22 years, what we’ve done is look at how industry and technology has evolved and how we can use it for the benefit of our customers and help them operate more efficiently and avoid surprises. We said, ‘What if we had the data and could process and store it? What if we had the computing power to visualize it? And what if we had the connectivity and the data flow to get it from the aircraft, and equally important, get the insights and give that to the decision makers?” This has come about now with technology and connectivity.”
Improved connectivity that speeds up delivery of the data can help enable maintenance and flight operations to be proactive instead of reactive, Karisch said. “Where we’re at now is prescriptive maintenance. We know how to build programs and diagnostics based on the richness of the data we have. I think people are very excited about new ways to connect aircraft to the ground in flight. It would provide a new opportunity for health and aircraft maintenance.”
The needs of the various end users are unique, and as use of data evolves, the global networks that support the collection and dissemination of data will need to be able to serve a wide variety of customers.
Pratt & Whitney’s EngineWise aftermarket services monitors the health of engines to predict and prevent disruptions before they occur, and its eFAST solution captures more than 10,000 data points per flight. The data is stored in a secured acquisition, storage and transmission infrastructure and then transmitted from the aircraft to Pratt & Whitney using wireless technology such as Wi-Fi and/or cellular. Data is critical to improving the MRO business decision making process, Pratt & Whitney said. “Better data means more accurate analysis – better decisions, operational efficiencies, cost reductions, and reduced risk. For GTF fleets, we’re collecting significantly more data at different times in the flight envelope, including at engine start, climb-out and descent, and generating more reports, such as on oil monitoring. ADEM capability has been enhanced to support analysis of this additional data enabling us to better identify any adverse events affecting performance. Customers will increasingly have more visibility into the state of engines and other components, enabling faster maintenance, more efficient engine removals and engine time-on-wing intervals customized to operators. In addition, we will continue to use the information and data to develop new algorithms and predictive tools to improve our products and overall support, services offerings and capabilities.”
Honeywell launched its Forge connectivity solution for airlines in June 2019 and expanded the offering to the business aviation sector in March. The expansion of Honeywell’s enterprise software into the aero sector was a natural expansion, said John Peterson, vice president and general manager of the software and services division at Honeywell Connected Enterprise. “There are packets of data on the aircraft, whether on engine, wheels and brakes, or landing gear. We want to get that packet of data, but it’s only useful if you can get that packet of data to a person so they know what to do as a result of what that the data tells them. … We have found airlines of all sizes, not to just ones with 400 tails, are trying to figure out what digitization strategy should be.”
The Forge solution has a number of different ways to move the information packets, such as wireless access points, and the network is designed to move the data in the most efficient method for the end user. “It’s different for every customer. What’s most important is you don’t want to bring somebody a solution that costs too much to implement. The value of data has to be far more than what it cost to acquire it.”
The sector continues to push for quicker access to the data. In June, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and GE Aviation unveiled a partnership that intends to leverage growing use of flight data analytics to improve aviation safety education. The platform is designed to give students and faculty access to GE Aviation’s flight data analytics platform for learning and research opportunities. “We’re always pushing to do things better and push the technology,” said Kenneth Byrnes, Associate Professor of Aeronautical Science and chair of the Flight Department at the Daytona Beach, Fla., campus. “White data transfer is not in its infancy stages, we are continuing to work on it.”
Currently, Embry-Riddle is gathering data off its training aircraft by pulling the data cards post-flight. In traditional operations, a small percentage of the total data may be streamed to the ground in the flight, either in discrete snapshots or continuously throughout the flight, GE said. The bulk of the data is retrieved on the ground, post flight, either through manual downloads or cellular/wi-fi wireless datalinks. Manual downloads are typically on weekly or monthly schedules, leading to significant latency and reduced overall data quality, due to manual errors (associating a download with the incorrect tail, etc.). Cellular downloads are often performed automatically after every flight or at least daily, leading to much less latency and more reliable data flows.
“This is great for safety and maintenance, but it’s really good for education,” Byrnes said. The school is working with flight debriefing company CloudAhoy to integrate data directly so when students and instructors return from flight, the data is available almost immediately, and integrating the GE solution is the next step. “The grand vision is that the data helps us on the safety side for monitoring, helps us for investigation, and also for research,” he said.
All involved see more growth and more reliance on data analytics, especially with advancements that will bring more use of real-time delivery via wireless satellite connectivity.
“We see real demand for real-time streaming data,” said Muruganandham. “A lot of things are happening at this moment, such as the rate at which the industry is transitioning. They want to offer the best posibble information to the pilot and systems inflight to enable them to optimize routes. The satellite industry is evolving to offer services such as real-time weather data that is plugged into the operational spectrum of the aircraft,
“If I look at the future, we want to have gone to full proactive management and be able to plan for operations,” said Karisch. Improved connectivity is the key enabler for this goal, he said. “We want to use data to see what would have been more optimal. We are doing some of that already, but I think we are creating is getting the right information to the right people and make decisions and really help them run their operations.”
More real-time use of data could also help the aero sector recover more quickly from the slowdown created by Covid-19 as well as help smooth out the business ups and downs the sector has traditoinally experienced, said Muruganandham.
“Airlines historically operate on very small profit margins, and COVID-induced conditions make those margins even smaller. Use of data for operations optimization will be increasingly important for maintaining the health of the business,” Matt Wiseman of GE said. “In general, even without COVID, the trend is that data and analytics are becoming more important for an airline to remain competitive. In particular, the ability to combine different data types (originating both on- and off-board) will be a key differentiator.”
“There are a number of different factors that affect real-time delivery,” Peterson said. “The first is the cost. Today, the cost to get the data off the aircraft is expensive. I think, within the next five years, Honeywell will be an innovator in providing how to apply cost that the data is basically free to them. Another piece that will dramatically reduce the cost is that new aircraft are so much more capable than traditional aircraft. The capital cost to acquire data from aircraft will go down exponentially moving forward. Every aircraft has a digitalization strategy and we want every aircraft to have access to acquire data. All of this will reduce the effort it takes to acquire that data packet, and it will all happen within the next three-to-five years.”