Norwegian wants more data for quickly analyzing aircraft operations. Its current process for getting that performance data off its 737NG fleet relies heavily on manual efforts, reducing flexibility and responsiveness. Thanks to the webFB Wireless Electronic Flight Bag module from Astronics Ballard Technology the airline will soon automate that data collection. After a year of trialing the hardware on 10 planes Norwegian will roll out the webFB hardware across all its 737NG aircraft.
The pilots carry electronic flight bags (EFBs) today. Those systems are a key component in the new program. The webFB module connects to an ARINC 717 data bus on the aircraft and activates a small wireless server on board. That server relays the desired data to the EFBs throughout the flight. The EFBs sync to a central repository when on the ground (or through an on-board wifi network), passing the desired data along to the back office for aggregation and further analysis. That’s helpful for the “big data” efforts at the company. But critical bits of information can also be processed in real-time on board. That makes a big difference for the flights while in the air, too.
The push to better manage and process the significant volume data that aircraft produce is a nascent industry. It is also one that promises to deliver billions of dollars in savings to airlines and massive revenue to the inflight connectivity providers as well. Transferring all the details on and off the aircraft to be processed means lots of data consumption. And the theory is that if it generates real cash savings to the airlines they’ll invest in the up-front costs – both hardware and bandwidth – to realize those goals. But what if the airlines can realize a significant portion of those benefits without dramatically increasing bandwidth costs to get there?
The connectivity industry remains in the early developmental stages of its “internet of things in aviation” lifecycle. In recent conversations not a single supplier suggested that airlines were close to delivering on that connectivity play and most still project a 3-5 year horizon for any substantive developments on this front. Given the long-bandied suggestion that the airline-driven revenue would support the connectivity investments this lack of progress on the operational side is mildly concerning for connectivity company revenue forecasts.
It is also worth looking again at what some vendors are doing with ultra lightweight bandwidth offerings. The Iridium NEXT constellation continues its progress towards full commercial implementation later this year and can deliver a thin pipe to commercial aircraft at a very reasonable cost. No movie streaming on NEXT but the value of keeping operational data on a separate network is very real, and many of the airline cost savings can be realized quickly and cost effectively with such a program. Gaining access to the better performing voice services on NEXT versus the legacy Iridium network comes as a bonus.
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