Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Future Is (almost) Here!

I've always been a bit of a computer geek. Ok, sometimes more than a bit, particularly when I can combine computers with aviation. I had several hundred instrument hours in MSFS 4.0 before I ever touched a real airplane. When I was 15, I coded a complete flight planning program (with great circle calculator!) in BASIC. And today I have an aviation centered blog. Yeah, I'll say no more.

But given that background, I feel fortunate to fly for an airline that is very technologically advanced, in the airplane that's usually the first to get the goodies. As I've written before, our entire fleet is equipped with Heads Up Guidance displays which allow us to shoot Cat III approaches and land in as little as 600 feet of visibility. We are the only regional airline in the United States to have this capability. In fact, we are the only airline of any size to have single-engine Cat III approval. The testing process to gain that FAA approval was extremely rigorous: our tech pilots shot thousands of approaches, often with one engine feathered, in the windiest conditions they could find, to a blind zero-zero touchdown...in the real airplane as well as the simulator. How did they make sure it was truly a blind landing in the airplane? Simple: leave the pilot-side window shade in place!

We also have dual Flight Management System computers installed, which allow us to use GPS satellites for departure, enroute, arrival, and approach navigation. GPS approach capability is widespread among light aircraft, but not at the airlines. A further development of the FMS approach will be the RNP approach. It is essentially a more precise GPS approach that allows for neat things like variable descent angles and curving approach paths - for all the details, see this recent post by John at Freight Dog Tales. RNP is in use at our sister airline, and approval is coming for us. Like the single-engine Cat III approval, getting the FAA to okay RNP has involved our tech pilots demonstrating thousands of approaches in very adverse conditions.

Our newest up-and-coming toy is coming mainly because of the Megawhacker's wholly inadequate radar system. My airline asked the aircraft manufacturer to install a better radar; they replied that they'd be happy to, for around $1 million. Management decided that for that price tag, they could get something a whole lot better. Initially the search was just for a satellite weather datalink, but the result is that we're now getting a full-blown Electronic Flight Bag (EFB).

The basic conception of an EFB is of a laptop computer that electronically stores all the charts and manuals you'd normally lug around in your flight case. This isn't new; jetBlue has been doing this since their inception five years ago. The new EFBs are much more than that. They are now custom designed computers, often permanently mounted tablet PCs, running Windows-based proprietary software. The newest concept, the one that my airline is pursuing, is to use a satellite link to provide real-time weather (text, charts, nexrad) on the EFB, which will also receive navigational data from the FMS units. This allows for moving map options that can display flight plan routing against overlays such as radar returns, lightning strikes, reported turbulence, winds aloft, etc.

That's the very basic system, the one the company is pursuing in the very short term. What's really neat is all the additional capability this hardware can provide with some extra software and little else. The satellite link allows not only weather downloading, but two way text and voice communication. Most airlines already have this capability, but it's a rather hodgepodge system that involves lots of acronyms (ACARS, SELCAL, AIRINC) and some significant geographical limitations. The satellite link will allow for nearly worldwide communications capability, and adding a computer to the mix will automate the process. The idea is to be able to quickly and painlessly talk to dispatch or maintenance control or even aircraft or medical specialists at the touch of a button. The pilots aren't the only ones to get in on the fun: the flight attendants will have their own EFB unit, through which they will eventually be able to do everything from reordering supplies from Food & Beverage to forwarding Special Passenger requests to completing the passenger count form and zapping the data via secure wifi to the captain's EFB. Someday we may see the rampers punching in cargo numbers on their own wifi-enabled PDA, with the EFB generating all weight & balance and performance data with no pilot input.

Oh yeah, one more thing: no more updating charts. Filing the Jeppesen revisions every two weeks has been a reviled chore since time immortal. With all charts and manuals onboard the EFB, however, revising them will simply involve tech pubs sending the new files via datalink.

Some of this is probably far in the future, but I don't doubt that it'll happen. Once the basic hardware is installed, additional capabilities only increase the return on investment. The biggest obstacle, in my opinion, will be the Luddite faction of the FAA. One thing is for sure, though: we're definately getting the weather link, and soon. That alone will be a huge improvement in safety and efficiency.

9 comments:

Aviatrix said...

Sigh. All the toys! My pre-takeoff checklist includes the callout "Radar" to which I invariably reply "Not installed." I think there's one Weedwhacker in the fleet with wx radar, and it's based somewhere else.

VxG said...

Everything I've heard about the EFB is that its just incredibly awesome and convenient. How about DirecTV via that satellite link on the Megawhacker? Now that would be a nice techinological advancement! Combining that with the microbrews and I'll be happy to be a passenger on your longest stages.

GC said...

My Company is in the process of getting the EFB thing going, too. Ours will be complete with XM satellite weather (and the rumor is the cabin will get the benefit of the XM radio as well). In addition, our on-board performance computer will go away, being integrated into the EFB along with our Jepp charts, company manuals, etc. Latest word is that we're getting the system that FedEx has been using. According to the muckity-mucks in the Training Center, we'll have the EFB in at least six aircraft by the end of the year, and since they're already being installed and tested in our simulators, I'm inclined to actually believe them.

I can't wait until I can make my brain bag lighter!

Hamish said...

Ah, but will the toys include the full 200 channels of XM Radio for those slack times between waypoints? The G1000 does... much better than ADF :-)

paul said...

gaak. the EFB sounds like a 'safety of flight' item to me.

sorry, you make think this stuff is neat, but this is freaking me out... How do you do that 3 fingered salute to reboot the Windows box while proceeding to the IAF in IMC?

I think I just felt a shiver go up my back.

cheers,

--paul

Sam said...

Nah, Paul, the EFB isn't going to replace anything we have right now, it's only going to augment our current equipment. Even if you have it set for a moving map overlaid on an approach plate, you're certainly not going to fly the approach by reference to that...we'll fly it like we've always flown it, with the EFB providing a little additional positional awareness. If the EFB goes on the fritz, no big deal.

--Sam

Paul said...

Sam,

Thanks for the clarification. Overdependance on non certified electronics is more of a problem in GA. Some of the Piper boards make you wonder what some owners are using in the clouds.

I know why it's done. What's the cost difference between a Garmin 396 and the same capabilities in the panel? $15k - $20k?

Great blog, btw.

--paul

John said...

Sam,

I'd be interested to learn a little more about how you feel about using MS Flight Simulator as a training tool. I am a 100 hr private pilot, getting ready to start instrument training. I have the sim with all the toys but have been reluctant to plunge into instrument flying with the sim, fearing I'll develop bad habits. Sure is a heck of a lot cheaper than airplane time.

Sam said...

I'd be interested to learn a little more about how you feel about using MS Flight Simulator as a training tool. I am a 100 hr private pilot, getting ready to start instrument training. I have the sim with all the toys but have been reluctant to plunge into instrument flying with the sim, fearing I'll develop bad habits. Sure is a heck of a lot cheaper than airplane time.

*Shrug* I had a few hundred instrument hours in MSFS 4.0 before I ever began primary flight lessons. It didn't seem to hurt, and that was a lot less realistic than the most recent versions. Go ahead and use it, it can be a great tool for getting your scan down and learning procedures, but just realize that not everything is the same as in the airplane, so approach the real lessons with an open mind. You'll probably find the flight sim to be more useful *during* your instrument training, when you can go home and practice the stuff you've done in the airplane, and get an early start on the next lesson.