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On the Slow Evolution of Aircraft Data Streaming

By Kendall Russell | March 17, 2017
      GCA Connected-Aircraft

      Photo: Access Intelligence

      Universal standards for real-time aircraft data streaming are long overdue. This is the view of Brian Pemberton, who works as vice president and general manager of Iridium’s aviation business. With its Iridium Next constellation already beginning to take flight, Pemberton believes the company is well positioned to stand as a service provider at the forefront of this emerging technology.

      While mysterious, once-in-a-blue-moon incidents like the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (MH370) in 2014 briefly reignite interest in real-time data streaming, Pemberton notes that the aerospace industry has generally advanced this issue at a glacial pace. In fact, he said the technology has been around for nearly a decade. “We’ve had a couple of Iridium partners that were looking at this concept years before the MH370 incident happened,” he said. “They had integrated their Iridium avionics platform into the databus that feeds the black box, and they were building algorithms to identify data and send that to the ground in real time if something looked anomalous with the operation of the aircraft.”

      Yet, years later and despite the innovation, the discussion about creating industry standards for data streaming remains stagnant. In 2015 the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) amended policy to require airlines to track their aircrafts’ location in 15-minute intervals, but to Pemberton this is nothing more than a half step. In the event of a disaster, tracking can be useful for finding downed aircraft, “but it doesn’t tell you what happened,” he said. And if you can’t retrieve the black box because it’s at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, for example, it can be difficult to find out.

      So why has the industry been slow to adopt this concept? Pemberton says part of the reason is that aircraft operators see little value in streaming all of the data all of the time. “We can send 100 percent of the data but since 99.9 percent of the data just says ‘everything’s OK,’ we’re using a lot of capacity and not delivering any incremental value,” he said. In other words, aircraft operators and safety authorities are mostly only concerned with collecting relevant data when something goes wrong.

      The solution: “trigger transmission.” Back in 2009, in the wake of the Air France Flight 447 (AF447) crash near Brazil, the French transport safety agency Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses (BEA) organized a working group tasked with looking into new technology to safeguard flight recorders. Trigger transmission was the result of their research — a system that detects emergency situations using flight parameters such as excessive pitch or roll, and then automatically transmits data from the aircraft until either the emergency situation ends, or the aircraft impacts the surface. The group presented the work they had done to the AF447 task force, and at the time Pemberton says BEA was very favorable to the concept “because they could demonstrate that algorithms could be developed that would not trigger on false alarms.”

      Unfortunately, the excitement didn’t last. “Air France came and went and the momentum around the concept seemed to have gotten lost,” he said. Then, when MH370 vanished a few years later, the whole conversation restarted. “A lot of people started brand new … but the work has really been done on this.” If you look at the BEA report from 2009, he says, the industry already had an answer to its problem. But airlines have dragged their feet in turning this concept into a reality.

      Pemberton highlights liability as another factor, as there are a number of unanswered questions the industry must come together to address before real-time data streaming can become ubiquitous. “Who owns the data? Where will the data be stored? How it will be protected?” he said. “Some airlines and Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) have been very tepid at the notion of institutionalizing this black box streaming concept.”

      Cost, naturally, is another major concern. “The view has always been [airlines] would be the ones to bear the equipage costs if there was incremental technology or the connectivity costs for sending such data to the ground. That usually gets a fair amount of pushback,” he said. Still, there’s a flip side: “If it’s one incident every decade, that’s not killing anyone’s [communications] budget. So they should be more receptive,” he said.

      Pemberton asserts that industry leaders often gloss over the other financial benefits that come along with this capability. When operators can pay closer attention to the factors affecting any particular flight, advantages such as improving maintenance costs and fuel burn come to light. “There can be an ROI for the aircraft operator to getting some of this data and turning it back around to them so they can improve operations,” Pemberton stated. This undermines the idea that real-time data streaming is too expensive, he says, because there are an increasing number of business reasons to put this technology and these types of applications into aircraft operations.

      “I think the key differentiator here is getting the community to understand that a trigger transmission solution delivers much greater value than just sending all the data all the time,” he said. Once that happens, it “opens the door to financial benefits for the operators outside of the streaming element and creates a ubiquitous solution from an increased safety perspective in the long term as well.”

      As far as where Iridium sees its role in the future, Pemberton personally believes satellite is the only viable solution for real-time data streaming. Satellites, particularly a constellation like Iridium Next, offer coverage air-to-ground technologies can’t match, such as in the Polar Regions. He says another advantage is that satellites provide higher bandwidth than legacy Very High Frequency (VHF) systems; and while some of the newer 4G systems are also high-bandwidth, they’re regionally limited, which makes them an ineffective solution for a full industry rollout. “When you put all the pieces together, satellite is the only real viable solution if you’re going to do this industry-wide,” he said.

      Pemberton expects Iridium to become the dominant force in this space as its new Certus portfolio expands and the Next constellation begins to take shape. “I think as people become more familiar with what Iridium Next and the Iridium Certus service platforms can do, they’ll come to recognize and appreciate that these types of concepts can be implemented now,” he said. If the market is conducive, he believes airline operators could start installing hardware enabling triggered data streaming as early as next year.