In the five years since its acquisition of Arinc, Rockwell Collins and the Information Management Services (IMS) group that formed from that purchase have embarked on a comprehensive approach to connectivity that begins before passengers set foot in an airport and covers the entire period until they disembark at their final destination. This “connected aviation ecosystem” runs the gamut from using biometrics to smooth the process through the airport, to facilitating multiple data pipelines on an airplane in a secure manner, to a pathway to sharing data among competitors.
Rockwell Collins has long had a heritage of onboard platforms, said Joel Otto, v-p of strategy and business development for IMS, but “we see that the market was really looking for something broader and [for] solutions that will actually enable those onboard platforms to deliver the value and capabilities.” The acquisition of Arinc enabled a network that now spans the majority of the globe, on numerous platforms and multiple airlines.
Rockwell Collins now is taking a holistic approach to this connectivity, Otto said. “We have points of presence into airlines and airports. We have stations for air-to-ground communications distributed throughout that global network, and that global network provides interoperability in communications among all of the participants in what we call the aviation ecosystems.” This ranges from airlines and maintainers to ground operations, airports, government agencies, baggage handlers, and reservation systems.
The goal is to facilitate a secure, high-availability network for the so-called ecosystem to inter-operate and share information, Otto said.
On-aircraft 'Enabling' Systems
On board the aircraft, Rockwell Collins has developed a variety of what Otto referred to as “enabling” systems for a range of airliners, from the Boeing 777 to the Airbus A320. This not only includes cockpit and cabin management systems to facilitate the use of either L-, Ku-, or Ka-band satcom systems, but it can also pull together data from these various sources and get it onto the ground and to the operator’s back shop.
Last year this effort took a step forward when Airbus selected the avionics giant for its flight operations and maintenance exchanger (Fomax) program that is designed to facilitate a shift to all-digital formats on Airbus A320s and A330s. Fomax provides a secure wireless means to collect aircraft performance and maintenance data and send that information to ground-based operations. Otto said this information could span a range of data, from health usage monitoring, flight data, or even economic data.
It can also send data to other applications used by flight crews, such as applications used for weather, flight planning, logbooks, and maintenance prediction and performance calculators.
That program builds on Rockwell Collins’s SSR-7000 Secure Server Router to enable a secure Wi-Fi network that works with cellular, terminal Wi-Fi, and all major satcom types.
It also works in tandem with Rockwell Collins’s global connect services to manage data flow and ensure seamless transition to the ground offices. “This is a service that helps the airline think about all these new link technologies that are coming in and having to manage how data moves between their systems. As those protocols become more complex, as those data movements become more complex and the links become more and more complex to manage…the global connect service will help you with managing those data flows across the journey of that airplane.”
Otto noted the industry is just beginning to consider the data demands that will be required on aircraft as it moves more toward becoming the “Internet of Things.” As aircraft become more connected in the sky and more passengers rely on data, new accommodations will be necessary, including the ability to operate among the multiple broadband pipelines.
The ability of inter-operability is particularly important given the role each plays. L-band services are primarily used for secure ATC communications. But it has limitations in capacity.
From a connectivity standpoint, Otto said, “We really think of [this] as an end-to-end delivery service for our customers, and so it's really media independent.”
“Different ‘smart’ aircraft fleets are going to require different IT infrastructure on the ground,” added Michael DiGeorge, managing director for the Asia-Pacific region for IMS. “Our global connect really does simplify that for the airlines and will provide one common infrastructure hosted in the cloud. So it becomes very economical for the airline to operate different smart aircraft fleet. It's really about how we take all of these new connectivity [pipelines], make them available to the airlines, get that data down to the ground, to our IT infrastructure and then deliver it to the airline back offices. We do this in a way that's very cost-effective and simple for the airlines.”
It's just as important to be ready for what’s new and coming up and staying on pace with the ability to connect the flight deck and cabin with the new technologies, Otto said, citing ACARS over IP as an example. “That is something that is right here in front of us. We see a lot going on.”
He further pointed to Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband-Safety as a new pipeline working towards becoming “the next generation of safe and secure links. They're a higher bandwidth than the current L-band satcom datalinks. They also support internet protocol, which allows us to do new and different things with those links than what we were able to do with the traditional messaging system.” Hawaiian Airlines has been involved in tests of SwiftBroadband-Safety for secure aircraft communications.
Rockwell Collins must develop these enabling technologies with an eye on the continued evolution and they must be adaptable to the next generation of applications, he added.
Rockwell Collins sees the evolution of the internet of things as something that will play a big role going forward, Otto said. “Right now we're going through that process of trying to figure out which systems to connect and what airlines might be able to do with that,” he said. “There's a lot of data that people would like to get off those airplanes and make them more interactive over time."
But substantial discussions are ongoing about what to do with big data. “We move all the data around the industry, and so we look at this, this whole concept of big data. It's an interesting thing,” he said. “It’s a collection of data, but until people actually apply intelligence to it and start to figure out how they want to use that data, it's really not of much value.” The first step is to build the repositories and collect data. Then, the industry must learn how to use the data to better understand and serve passengers. Another facet is how to use data to manage disruptions such as weather events, including collaborations between airlines and airports.
One of the biggest challenges is having the airlines share the information to help the overall flow of traffic, but do this in a competitive environment. “How do you actually share that data in a collaborative way and yet protect people who want to compete with each other?” he asked.
On the ground, Rockwell Collins has worked with airports to provide “common-use” connectivity, from kiosks to check-in desks that may be used by multiple airlines. In addition, these connections go toward managing resources at airports, from tracking airplanes and passengers, to flight data, to airline host systems. “We help those all talk to each other, so we do a lot of protocol translations and other things to make that system work and to help our customers be able to stay connected,” he said.
This work is critical, given the aging systems and the importance of them to airline operations, he added, likening the systems to vital organs. “Upgrading and changing those are almost like an organ transplant for the airline. They have to go through and continue to run.” He noted the problems airlines have had with their internal systems and said, “Our job is to keep those airlines connected and the information flowing.”
For the airports, Rockwell Collins has developed a cloud-based offering for its Common Use Passenger Processing System that is in the process of being deployed and should be operational this summer at the launch location, Ottawa International Airport. The program, cMuse, is designed to provide an alternative for airports to installing racks of services and equipment and maintaining them. It was originally intended for smaller and regional airports that might not have the budget or space to maintain such servers, said Christopher Forrest, v-p airport systems for IMS. But what the company has found is that larger airports are expressing an equal level of interest in the program.
“These airports now will be able to access and use those common things, which allows them a lot of flexibility in terms of how many airlines and what passengers they serve,” Otto said.
Rockwell Collins has further teamed with airports to automate processes with SelfServe and SelfDrop for check-in and bag drops. While questions have been raised that such programs are replacing jobs, Otto said they are freeing reservation agents to become customer service agents rather than passenger processors. The company expanded its reach into this arena through its acquisition announced in early 2017 of Pulse.Aero Limited, a UK-based company that deals in self-service bag-drop solutions and airline applications.
The next push is for biometrics for the check-in process, Otto said. The idea would be to use a fingerprint, facial recognition, or even an eye-print throughout the process—from check-in to stepping on board an airplane. Rockwell Collins is in the process for developing biometrics capabilities at the various stages of passenger processing.
Such technologies are further being explored by security chiefs, including the Transportation Security Administration, which can be aware of passengers even before they arrive at the airport, and Customs and Immigration on possibilities for security and in the area of entrance and exit visas. “We're seeing a lot of effort around securing borders, securing information around passengers,” Otto said. “Governments want to know well in advance who's coming into their country. One of the big advantages we have with a private network is it keeps that information secure and keeps it off of the public internet sites. Exchanging that kind of information needs a safe, secure communication.”
The underpinning of all these efforts is cybersecurity. Everything must be in a safe environment, and the topic has become sharply in focus. “Obviously there was a lot of conversation going on in the aviation industry, and how secure are the links,” he said. “We’re very involved in that.”
Otto noted that the global connect service is part of the company’s security architecture.
But beyond that, Rockwell Collins has developed new protocols as part of its work within the nuclear power industry under mandate from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and has transferred some of the technologies and lessons learned over to the aviation side, he said.
“We have built out a capability now and we can take from [the nuclear] industry and move it across into other areas to help airlines and the airports figure out how to secure their facilities.”