Rockwell Collins fusing online with real-world ops

 - October 18, 2010, 3:29 PM

The success of data services, such as the General Motors automotive OnStar system, suggests that some hardware manufacturers will eventually make most of their revenue not from the painstaking process of designing and manufacturing physical products but from selling data to owners of their hardware. In aviation, this trend is firmly evident in Rockwell Collins’s purchase of flight handling company Air Routing in January. And especially so with the announcement of the new Rockwell Collins Ascend Flight Information Solutions products.

Ascend is the first big product resulting from the Air Routing acquisition and also marks the retirement of the Air Routing brand name. Henceforth, the Houston-based flight planning, handling and information services division is known as Flight Information Solutions. A simple way of thinking of Ascend is that it is a content-management system for aircraft, consolidating and accumulating all the data needed to accomplish missions and sharing data generated by each flight.

“This is a business that begins to take Rockwell Collins in a new direction,” said Steve Timm, vice president and general manager of information management, commercial systems. Rockwell Collins began exploring the information management problem in 2008, he said. “We saw an opportunity to address some of the new things that were occurring. The systems on the airplane are becoming more and more capable and sophisticated. The amount of information that they depend upon weather, charts, maps, news, entertainment–or the amount of information generated by the airplane, maintenance, as an example, is exponentially higher than it was just years ago.”

What was interesting for Rockwell Collins was how to manage all this data efficiently. “As the systems on the airplane become more complex,” Timm said, “the systems on the ground aren’t keeping up, and it’s creating a hell of challenge for the flight operations organizations.” Customers were asking for help, he said.

Rockwell Collins’s key airborne products–the Venue cabin management system and Fusion avionics suite–are fundamental to the company’s shift “beyond products and solutions as it evolves into an information-management company,” according to Timm. “When we rolled out those brands, a key tenet within the flight deck and cabin was an information pillar. We’re going to deliver on that promise by making the systems on the airplane more connected and synchronized to systems on the ground that support planning and closeouts of the entire mission.”

Flight operations today are supported by many disparate service providers who aren’t integrated, efficient or predictable, Timm said. Examples include trip planning and support, maintenance, catering, fuel and weather services. “You can get those services today, but you’ll get them from many different providers.”

Rockwell Collins worked with customer advisory boards to learn what they needed. Four key areas emerged: safety, security, regulatory compliance; efficiency; unique passenger experience (customers want a seamless transition to office or home entertainment environments in their aircraft); and most important, psredictability of operations. Aircraft owners want to know that they can travel when they want to reliably.

Ascend Cuts Invoices
Ascend integrates all of the services needed to satisfy those key requirements from a trusted and reliable source, Timm said. Customers no longer will have to deal with what is typical now, receiving invoices from 15 to 20 different service providers after one trip. What Ascend is, he explained, “is a globally integrated suite of application services that optimize flight support, maintenance operations and cabin services, all from a single source.”

The services provided include flight planning and filing, concierge service, fuel, weather updates and automatic transfer of data to and from the airplane wirelessly, including nav and other database updates. “We’re going to make the aircraft a node on a network that is tightly synchronized with your flight operations,” he said.

The core capability that links the ground and aircraft systems together is called Aircraft Information Manager (AIM). AIM includes flight support services from the Air Routing acquisition, like regional trip support (self-service) capability for simpler trips, traditional handling for longer complex trips and including datalink via Satcom Direct for flight plan upload to the aircraft. Other flight support capabilities include the fuel stop analyzer, weather updates, weight and balance and single invoicing.

AIM’s cabin services are enabled by the Venue cabin management system. Services include integration of smartphones and uploading news and entertainment to the cabin.

Database updates and maintenance data downloads are the other AIM offering. AIM will enable the aircraft to download maintenance data from the maintenance data computer and upload nav databases on the airplane wirelessly, by using local 3G or Wi-Fi networks, when the aircraft is on the ground, activating as soon as weight-on-wheels signals the system after landing.  

The Fusion avionics suite includes the IMS-6000 information management server that facilitates these data transfers. Aircraft equipped with Pro Line 21 and 4 avionics will need the addition of an IMS-3500 that allows the same connectivity.

While the goals mentioned above are important for Rockwell Collins customers, the bottom line of Ascend is that it will also save money. “The savings is significant when you integrate these systems,” Timm said. “We’re talking about in the range of 3 to 7 percent of your flight operations costs being a targeted improvement.” These savings come from lower fuel and operating costs and also the lower overhead costs available from dealing with one service provider instead of multiple companies.

Pro Line Meets Ascend

Rockwell Collins’s Pro Line Fusion avionics suite has gained new OEM platforms and is now the selection for aircraft from five manufacturers. These include Bombardier’s Learjet 85, Global 5000, XRS and the just-announced 7000/8000 and the C series airliners, Embraer’s Legacy 450/500, the Gulfstream G250 and Mitsubishi MRJ70 and 90.

At the Rockwell Collins booth (No. 7557), the company is showing NBAA attendees for the first time videos of Pro Line Fusion flight tests where synthetic vision system (SVS) output is displayed on a head-up guidance system. The video was shot over the mountains near Mammoth, Calif. Data is delivered to the head-up guidance system via fiber-optic cables.

Pro Line Fusion is designed to work closely with Ascend and will offer new functionality to simplify flight operations. For example, pilots flying to an airport will be able to mouse-click on that airport’s approach feather on their multifunction display using the cursor-control device, and that approach will then automatically load into the FMS, saving a lot of button pushing.

Another unique feature is the airport dome, a translucent dome-like element that sits over the destination airport in the SVS view, helping the pilot instantly see the airport location in relation to the aircraft. As the aircraft gets nearer to the airport, the dome gradually becomes clearer.

The Bombardier Global 5000 and XRS will be first to deliver with Pro Line Fusion and will incorporate the SVS view on the head-up guidance system, graphical flight planning on the FMS, a handy cg envelope calculation and display system and the airport visualization (dome) enhancement. Next up will be Gulfstream’s G250, which will feature a cursor-control device designed by Gulfstream engineers.
Rockwell Collins is spending 20 percent of revenues on research and development, according to Greg Irmen, vice president and general manager, business and regional systems.”

He admitted that Rockwell Collins can’t share all of the research that it is doing, but one area of focus is a single-pilot-configured Part 25 jet. “In fact, it may even be beyond a single-pilot-configured aircraft to a pilotless aircraft,” he explained. “While that may sound extreme and maybe the marketplace may not go to that place, by studying that goal and that vision, it generates a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and energy around coming up with features and functions that enable going to a single-pilot operation. When you get those features and functions, what you find is it’s all around making the operation simpler and improving the safety of flying the aircraft. Are those features not desired regardless if you have one pilot or two pilots?”