FAA guidance on EFBs leaves several questions unanswered

 - May 6, 2008, 6:06 AM

With more and more pilots bidding farewell to paper approach charts and turning to the convenience of handheld flight-deck computers, official word from the FAA stipulating exactly how such devices may be used in the cockpit has been eagerly anticipated by the industry for some time.

Guidance came recently with the release of  an advisory circular that outlines–for the first time–specific certification and operational standards for so-called electronic flight bags (EFBs), now in use not only by individual corporate operators, but also by large charter and fractional providers, which have reasoned that they stand to save a significant amount of money over time using the upstart technology.

With AC 120-76, Guidelines for the certification, airworthiness and operational approval of electronic flight bag computing devices, the FAA has split EFBs into three classes, ranging from small, personal digital assistants (PDA) and handheld pen-tablet computers to permanently installed EFBs capable of interfacing with EICAS, FMS and navigation sensors.

Most professional flight crews will be interested mainly with class-2 and -3 devices, which may be used for viewing navigation charts during takeoff and landing, provided some means of backup–either a second EFB or paper charts–are present in the cockpit. But before getting into a detailed explanation of what the different classes of EFBs are capable of doing–and exactly how and when pilots are permitted to use the devices–it’s important to point out that the AC, as written, applies only to commercial operations. While the FAA apparently would prefer that Part 91 operators at least make themselves aware of what is contained in the AC, at this point there is absolutely no requirement for Part 91 operators to follow AC 120-76’s guidelines.

As long as the FARs are followed, use of an off-the-shelf EFB running appropriate software is perfectly acceptable for Part 91. That’s good news for corporate pilots who have worried that a ramp check might lead to some tough questions from FAA inspectors if a non-certified EFB is found on board. On the other hand, it may not be good news for charter operators who had hoped to use the same devices unencumbered by FAA restrictions.

Clear as Mud?

For Part 135 operators, who must adhere to the AC’s guidance, there has been ample confusion in the last couple of months, uncertainty that the AC has failed to resolve. Tim Murphy, vice president of marketing for Flight Deck Resources (FDR), the Dana Point, Calif. company that helped TAG Aviation get off the ground with its EFB initiative earlier this year, said his company recently sent a letter to the FAA asking for specific clarification on several points, which were brought to the forefront after the AC’s release in July.

“We’ve had some specific questions from our clients, and are seeking clarification from the FAA,” said Murphy, whose company markets EFBs and has worked closely with customers to gain EFB operational approvals.

A main concern highlighted in the company’s letter to the FAA dealt with a requirement that class-2 EFBs be attached to the aircraft by an approved mounting device.

“Assuming that the mounting device and cradle must be crashworthy and STC’d, the cost would make it prohibitive for most operators,” wrote the company in its letter. “Also, mounting devices are not practical in many aircraft because of inadequate space–frequently, the mounting device may be in the wrong location such as when the sun ‘washes’ out the display…[As an] alternative solution, EFBs would be used as a kneeboard secured to the pilot’s leg with a strap when in use and be connected to data ports and aircraft power. EFBs would be stowed or secured when not in use.”

Murphy said FDR also questioned two statements in the AC that he and several FDR  clients interpret as contradictory. The first states that “panning, scrolling, zooming or other active manipulation” of approach charts is not permissible, a limitation that would seem to prevent many EFBs–including the popular Fujitsu computers–from qualifying as class-2 devices.

Murphy said several operators, however, have pointed to a statement a few paragraphs later in the AC that talks specifically about panning and scrolling, saying this perhaps is an error that needs clarification.

Class Structure

Starting from the bottom layer of the EFB strata, the following is an overview of the different classes of device and the functions they are capable of performing: class-1 EFBs may be used on the ground and during flight as a source of “supplemental information,” but not for viewing navigation charts. They would generally consist of a simple PDA loaded with checklists, weight-and-balance calculators and other types of flight-relevant software. The AC states that PDAs may not be datalinked, but again this applies only to commercial operations–good news for companies that market airborne datalink services, such as weather reporting, for display on a PDA.

While class-2 and -3 devices may be used for viewing approach charts, there are some notable differences between the two, not the least of which is price. The typical class-2 device currently sells for an uninstalled price of between $5,000 and $10,000. Fractional provider Flight Options and charter/management company TAG Aviation have been using the portable pen-tablet computers produced by Fujitsu, computing devices that could be certified as class-2 devices. Universal avionics, meanwhile, recently gained TSO certification of the company’s $33,000 Universal Cockpit Display (UCD), a permanently installed device that is capable of interfacing with FMS and being used as a moving map, and therefore appropriate to class-3 certification standards.

According to the AC, class-2 devices must be attached to the aircraft by some sort of mounting device, but they can be removed from the aircraft on the ground and used by pilots at home, in a hotel room or at the operations office for a variety of purposes, including Internet surfing, e-mail, trip planning, weather gathering and so forth. Also, class-2 devices, unlike battery-powered class-1 EFBs, may connect to aircraft power.

Class-3 EFBs, on the other hand, must be permanently installed in the aircraft and approved under the STC process. The benefit of class-3 devices is that they may interface with EICAS, FMS and other aircraft systems. Another advantage of Universal’s UCD is that its screen is a little larger than lower-priced devices, and therefore it is easier to use than screens that require scrolling or panning. Class-3 devices may also be used for functions such as pilot-controller datalink communications (CPDLC), traffic information such as ADS-B and TIS-B and weather datalink, and may include terrain, obstacle and noise-abatement procedure databases.

Part 135 operator TAG Aviation is in the midst of a program that eventually will see many of the company’s 360 pilots around the world begin using EFBs to brief approaches and for other flight-related functions. Larry Edeal, vice president of flight operations for TAG in San Fransisco, said about 30 pilots have gone through training and are now using the Fujitsu tablet computers. Pilots use paper charts for the actual approach, he added, but have access to the computer in the cockpit, as well as a laptop backup.

No matter the device, all EFBs on the market today use digital navigation charts supplied by Jeppesen. The company’s JeppView FliteDeck software (developed by Montreal-based Marinvent Corp.) enables the charts to be displayed on a variety of products from Spirent’s AvVantage EFB and Northstar’s CT-1000 to the Fujitsu computers and Universal’s UCD, among other devices. The Gulfstream IV and V have the Northstar unit as an optional yoke-mounted device under a supplemental type certificate, and are small and have very bright screens.

Wither Paper?

While Jeppesen’s main processing facilities in Denver and Frankfurt, Germany, continue to mail an average of around 20 million paper pages a week to subscribers, the aviation information supplier is moving purposefully toward electronic storage, distribution and in-cockpit access to its range of charts and aeronautical data services.

Jeppesen distributes JeppView terminal charts on CD-ROMs, updated every two weeks, while area and other charts are still on paper. Soon JeppView version 3.5 will add text, airport qualification and en route charts, with the initial CD-ROM updated via the Internet. Internet updates would also replace the paper updates that pilots commonly receive at their home addresses.

Since the mid-1990s Jeppesen has been investing in the development of a new database that will provide the foundation for a range of integrated products. A major investment area is the so-called advanced business development organization, formed to lead the transition to paperless services. Employing about 70 of Jeppesen’s 1,650-strong staff, the department’s main responsibility involves developing electronic data applications with avionics suppliers and aircraft manufacturers.

Jeppesen’s electronic charts are used by a number of established avionics makers, including UPS Technologies with its MX-20 multifunction display and the Universal UCD, along with the many products based on the Fujitsu handheld computers. The charts will also be featured in new avionics suites that suppliers Honeywell and Rockwell Collins plan to introduce within the next two years.

Jeppesen is looking to the EFB concept as a means of streamlining information management in the cockpit. As a prototype platform, it has been using the Fujitsu computer modified to display data in portrait rather than traditional landscape format. This application has established that a kneeboard-size device could provide all the functionality of a laptop computer.

The screen on the prototype is segmented so that the plan view remains constant on the lower part of the screen, though its scale can be changed by a zoom function, while the top part shows selected information, such as the approach briefing screen with decision heights and so on. Given a GPS input, the aircraft’s position can be displayed on the plan view, and the taxi situational awareness display shows the aircraft’s position on a geo-referenced airport drawing.

This would be one of the applications for the new airport database the company wants to develop. Future enhancements could include the addition of indications of the positions of other aircraft on the airport surface using ADS-B inputs.