New FAA Rule Makes Automatic Database Updates a Breeze

 - April 3, 2013, 3:55 AM

The FAA’s new final rule allowing pilots to update navigation and avionics databases took effect on January 28. The rule covers “updating of databases used in self-contained, front-panel or pedestal-mounted navigation equipment.”

The rule amends maintenance regulations so that database updating is no longer listed as preventive maintenance. Before January 28, pilots flying under Part 91 could update databases, but charter pilots under Part 135 could not. “This revision,” according to the FAA, “will ensure that pilots using specified avionics equipment have the most current and accurate data and thereby increase aviation safety.”

Jerry Sheehy, senior marketing manager of Rockwell Collins Flight Information Solutions, welcomes the change. Having previously run a Part 135 charter operation, Sheehy is well aware of the logistical challenges facing commercial carriers. The good news with this new rule, he explained, is that “the FAA has said there are no changes to OpsSpecs. That’s a big deal. This will make it much easier for [Part] 135 operators.”

Changing operations specifications can take a long time, but now all an operator needs to do is create a training process and a written procedure for pilots to follow when updating databases. Whoever updates the database still needs to make an entry in the aircraft’s permanent records, and that process must be part of the training and procedures.

Sheehy agrees that the new rule makes flying safer. “You don’t have to potentially ask a pilot to go fly an airplane without a current nav database.” While there is a procedure for doing that, which involves making sure that navigation information hasn’t changed, that also introduces more chances of problems stemming from human error.

For Rockwell Collins, the rule simplifies database updating via the company’s Aviation Information Manager (AIM) service. Available for about a year, AIM includes a web portal where operators can manage aircraft databases. With an IMS-3500 box installed in aircraft equipped with Rockwell Collins Pro Line 4 or 21 or an IMS-6010 in Fusion-equipped aircraft, database updates can be done wirelessly. The IMS box communicates via Wi-Fi or AT&T’s cellular network when on the ground to obtain database updates and to deliver maintenance diagnostic files from the airplane. The updates are staged in the IMS box, then when a pilot wants to do the update, all that is needed is to tap a button on the CDU in the cockpit or use AIM remotely from a web browser to instruct the IMS to install the update. Alternatively, a pilot can download the update onto a flash drive and plug that into the aircraft’s DBU-5010E. But using the AIM service, Sheehy pointed out, “it’s all automatic.”

Rockwell Collins compresses the data to make updates happen faster. A typical update takes about five minutes, according to Sheehy. If the airplane lands and picks up, say, half of the update, the rest of the update will happen at the next stop, as soon as the airplane is able to log onto Wi-Fi or the AT&T cellular network.

The AIM service costs about $2,500 to $3,500 per year per airplane. The IMS boxes can be installed on 23 aircraft types, and Rockwell Collins provides the STC for these installations for free. The IMS is a retrofit on Pro Line 4- or 21-equipped aircraft and comes standard with Pro Line Fusion. There are currently no plans to offer the IMS for aircraft without Rockwell Collins avionics, Sheehy said, “but I would entertain that. There’s nothing all that magical about making it work; it’s just a matter of engineering. Right now we don’t have plans to do that.”

Rockwell Collins hopes to obtain EASA certification for the IMS installation and wireless database updating next month. Operators would then use a European cellular provider such as Orange or Vodafone for updates. “We’re working to expand as quickly as we can,” Sheehy said.

Updates aren’t done via satcom, because of the cost of transmitting that much data, although the IMS-6010 is capable of working via the Iridium satcom system. “It’s in our roadmap,” he said.