Surface Pro 3 Moving into Mostly Commercial Cockpits

 - March 22, 2015, 9:00 AM
Austrian Airlines has deployed 950 Surface Pro 3 computers such as these shown mounted in one of the airline’s Airbus A320s.

Microsoft is ramping up efforts to expand into the electronic flight bag (EFB) market with its Surface Pro 3. While at first glance the Surface Pro 3 looks like a large tablet, it is more a powerful but slimmed-down laptop computer that can double as a tablet. And while it is not ideal for every cockpit because it is so large (7.93 x 11.5 x 0.36 inches), Microsoft is gaining adherents in the airline market and offers an alternative for those who prefer something other than the ubiquitous Apple iPad or the less popular (in aviation) Android-based tablets.

For the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to try out Microsoft’s flagship tablet. Microsoft provided one of its Surface Pro 3s with Jeppesen’s FliteDeck Pro pre-installed, a typical configuration for airline pilot users. While FliteDeck Pro for Windows isn’t currently available as a standalone product that a pilot can buy directly from Jeppesen, the company said it is considering making it available for users such as corporate pilots.

The Surface Pro 3 provided by Microsoft is not quite the top-of-the line with the Intel Core i7 processor, but has a still-speedy Core i5 with 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of flash-based storage. The operating system is Windows 8.1 Pro, which offers both the normal mouse and keyboard interface and a touchscreen that can also be accessed using the stylus/pen included.

Unlike other tablets, the Surface is a full computer; you can plug a mouse and keyboard into the USB 3.0 port, and the 12-inch display is large enough for normal work using typical Windows programs. The display is excellent, with 2,160 x 1,440 pixel (2K) resolution and a 3:2 aspect ratio. The screen can be split into two windows, so you could run FliteDeck Pro on one side and another program, say a flight manual viewer or Microsoft Word, on the other.

The device weighs 1.76 pounds, and battery life is up to nine hours. Like most tablets, the Surface has front and rear cameras, both 5 megapixels and capable of 1080P video capture. Wi-Fi (802.11ac) and Bluetooth (4.0) are also included. Making the Surface more laptop-like is the optional Type Cover, which snaps into a connector on one of the tablet’s long sides. The cover includes a trackpad and typical Windows keyboard, and it folds down to cover and protect the display. On the back of the display, the fold-out kickstand conveniently props up the tablet for even more laptop functionality. Companies such as RAM, navAero and Pivot make mounting systems for the Surface. The navAero mount can include power and an Ethernet connection between two tablets.

FliteDeck Pro

There are differences between Jeppesen FliteDeck Pro on the Surface Pro 3 and the Apple iPad version, but functionally Jeppesen has kept the two versions similar so pilots familiar with one platform will adapt easily to the other. Two features on the iPad that are not on the Surface are weather data and own-ship position on approach charts, although the Surface version does allow own-ship display on airport diagrams. This sort of makes sense because airlines generally aren’t allowed to use own-ship display on tablet-based EFBs in the air; for some reason regulators are squeamish about this feature.

En route chart display is also similar, but the own-ship position indicator on the Surface is a magenta circle while on the iPad it is a magenta filled-in arrowhead. The terrain background in FliteDeck Pro takes full advantage of the Surface’s large display.

While Jeppesen hasn’t targeted the business aviation market for the Surface Windows 8.1 version of FliteDeck Pro, the company plans to add more features such as weather and integration with external data sources. “Over the next several months,” a spokesman told AIN, ”Jeppesen will continue to harmonize capabilities between iOS and Windows 8 and we will also introduce capabilities unique to the Windows platform, such as taking advantage of a USB interface.”

Ready for Bizav?

The big question for tablet EFB users is whether the Surface Pro 3 provides a suitable alternative to iPad and Android tablets. While the Surface is a capable computer that can do much more than display Jeppesen FliteDeck Pro, it suffers from a lack of other aviation-oriented applications. The Surface is a Windows computer, not just a tablet, so when looking at available software, one has to consider software that is compatible with Windows 8.1–not just tablet–applications. In any case, tablet-style aviation EFB apps such as ForeFlight, WingX, Garmin Pilot or FlyQ EFB are not available for the Surface.

The Surface is not equipped with GPS, so a GPS source is required for the device to display own-ship position on airport diagrams and en route charts. So far one GPS is designed to work with the Surface, the Bad Elf GPS Pro. I tested the Surface Pro 3 with a new Bad Elf GPS Pro+, and at first I couldn’t get the Surface to recognize the GPS data, even though the Bad Elf was paired to the Surface via Bluetooth. I finally realized that the Bad Elf GPS Pro would show position information on FliteDeck Pro only after I restarted the Surface Pro 3 with the Bad Elf GPS already switched on. Once connected, if I turn off the Bad Elf then turn it back on, it stops providing position information to the Surface and will not do so until the Surface is restarted. However, even this procedure was not 100-percent effective, and sometimes the Surface simply will not show the GPS position, even though it says it is paired with the Bad Elf GPS. Most of the time restarting will fix this problem.

“We understand there may be an interest in [non-commercial] aviation for an alternative for the iPad,” said Brian Eskridge, Microsoft Surface senior manager. “What we’ve worked with customers [to do] is to test and define what is a great experience in commercial aviation.”

Commercial Customers

Companies that have adopted Surface devices generally are using FliteDeck Pro, although Lufthansa has selected its own Lido software for an EFB application. Austrian Airlines is also using Lido’s eRouteManual, Airbus’s FlySmart (takeoff performance calculator) and Condor’s Efras (flight operations) for 950 Surface Pro 3s deployed to flight crews. Air Asia pilots use Surface tablets, although the airline declined to provide any additional information to AIN.

Delta Air Lines has begun issuing to its pilots more than 11,000 Surface 2 devices running FliteDeck Pro and expects to finish the FAA validation phase in the middle of this year. The devices are mounted on side windows using extra-strength suction cups. In addition to FliteDeck Pro, the Delta Surfaces include a secure content locker for flight manuals and other documentation. Delta says it chose Microsoft products so that pilots can connect with other enterprise software used at the airline. Plans call for adding electronic dispatch and flight release, real-time weather access, operational information and “dynamic communication with aircraft technicians on the ground,” according to Delta.

“The design intent was to create the first tablet that would really replace your laptop,” said Eskridge. “So far feedback from customers has been great. Pilots are using an EFB solution and replacing heavy binders.”

“It’s also important to note that when [the Surface] is used as an EFB, it’s specific to the applications,” said Greg Jones, Microsoft managing director of worldwide hospitality and travel. “Carriers aren’t wanting pilots to do Microsoft Office or emails [on the aircraft]. Once they’re finished flying, they can go to standard apps to help do their business.”

Although software development activity for the Windows 8.1/Surface environment has been limited to the commercial aviation arena, Jones said that there will be further progress as Microsoft releases the upcoming Windows 10 operating system. “Windows 10 is easier to develop once across multiple form factors,” he explained. “The Surface is one of the devices everyone wants to go to, with its enhanced Office productivity, which lots of pilots use.”

Another application optimized for the Surface Pro 3 is AviIT’s eMan mobile technical library. The eMan solution makes an operator’s entire technical library or any other documents available online or offline on the Surface. “It allows all PDFs, Excel spreadsheets, Word documents or training videos to be put into a server environment then set up on a user’s graphical user interface on a web page,” said Dale Alven, AviIT v-p of technical solutions. “The end-users have a file-driven menu system and can click open to anything they need. Our administration tool is built to allow a technical librarian without an IT background to organize data, which relieves the workload of the IT [department]. It improves the performance of the maintenance departments and speeds up that whole process.”

For AviIT and its customers, the advantage of the Windows environment is that any Windows-based device can run the eMan software. The Surface adds flexibility with its various interfaces and portability. If a link on the display is too small for easy touchscreen finger access, the user can either pinch-zoom to expand the link or tap the link with the stylus/pen or use the trackpad or a mouse.