eFlight transforms aircraft into information nerve centers

 - May 27, 2008, 6:37 AM

Rockwell Collins announced that it is embarking on a mission to turn the cockpits and passenger compartments of business airplanes and regional airliners into virtual information nerve centers, where all manner of digital data would be sent, received and stored using high-speed electronic pipelines and onboard computer servers.

The concept is called eFlight, and its designers say it will provide the in-flight capabilities needed to usher in a new era in aviation. For a start, eFlight capabilities will give pilots quick access to map overlays, graphical weather displays, digital ATIS and even controller-pilot datalink communications (CPDLC).

“Real-time information access for business and regional aircraft requires global connectivity with the transfer of information available when and where needed,” said Greg Churchill, vice president and general manager for Collins Business and Regional Systems. “Through eFlight, Rockwell Collins is developing the equipment, protocols and resources to offer enhanced information access.”

Just what does enhanced information access entail? For the cabin, eFlight will provide secure, high-speed access to e-mail and the Internet, as well as cabin and passenger services such as manifest updates and management of cabin systems. Think of it as a super-powerful desktop PC for the airplane that has the ability to connect with and move information around the aircraft, down to the ground and vice versa.

Assuming Collins can solve the technical questions, the eFlight concept would turn the cabin and cockpit into an integrated communications center, opening almost limitless possibilities for collecting and using data. For example, pilots would be able to climb into the cockpit and automatically start uploading the latest FMS database, transmit automated position and status information, download maintenance prognostics and forward dispatch and maintenance releases to personnel on the ground.

In short, the eFlight concept holds the promise of allowing business aviation flight departments and regional airlines to stay in contact with and manage fleet operations, while at the same time providing the all-important link to make office-in-the-sky and Free Flight architecture work for the passengers and flight crew.

This new digital data acquisition, distribution and display model is made possible by new satellite-based datalinks, such as Inmarsat’s Swift64 service, which is designed to provide the equivalent of an airborne ISDN line to the aircraft (see story above). Initial eFlight services will include the digital ATIS and limited ATC messaging, as well as weather, flight following, flight and diplomatic clearances, flight deck e-mail and Internet access in the cabin.

System Compatibility

According to Churchill, services through eFlight will be integrated with the avionics maker’s Pro Line 21, Pro Line 21 Continuum and Pro Line 21 CNS product lines. This equipment includes LCD flight displays, digital VHF radios, communication management units, file servers and high-speed satcom equipment.

To make the high-speed Inmarsat data connection possible, Collins is introducing the HST-900, an additional transceiver that is married to an existing SAT-906 antenna and high-power amplifier. The system is compatible with Ethernet, ISDN and RS-232 interfaces and allows for simultaneous use of high-speed datalink and voice services through the Aero-H/H+ SAT-906 satcom.

As part of the eFlight initiative, which Collins has made clear will be a major part of its business strategy, the Cedar Rapids, Iowa company has joined forces with Universal Weather & Aviation to provide data and operations management services to the flight deck and flight operations of business aircraft. Services from Universal include flight planning, trip status and textual and graphical weather bundled together in a number of service packages.

Take Control

“Our agreement with Universal is a step toward providing operators a single point of contact for a variety of aviation service needs,” said Churchill.

Initial eFlight services are scheduled to come online next year, after Inmarsat opens up its high-speed satcom data pipe. Observers expect that when this happens, it will be on a par with other important aviation milestones, such as the introductions of satcom itself in the late 1980s or the flight management system in the 1970s.

Collins said it would provide more details of eFlight in the future, including the specifics of hardware architecture, service provider agreements and future functionality. California-based Passenger Systems, one of the three operating units of the Collins Commercial Systems group, will build a number of the hardware components for use with eFlight. Those facilities include the former Hughes Avicom in Pomona and recently acquired Sony Trancom in Irvine.  

With eFlight, Collins spokespeople like to quip that now there’s a fast lane in the sky to the Information Superhighway that allows passengers and crew to “take control.” In the last five years, as the Internet and e-mail have become crucially important not only to busy executives but also to pilots, dispatchers and regional airline operations centers on the ground, any access to the Information Superhighway would have been readily welcomed.

The idea of a single aircraft system that allows passengers, pilots and personnel on the ground to have an on-ramp to the Information Superhighway, however, should improve just about every aspect of a flight, particularly as aircraft operators themselves dream up new ways to use tomorrow’s high-speed air-to-ground data pipelines.