IoT in the Sky

Thursday Jul 2nd 2015 by Drew Robb
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The Internet of Things can potentially improve the aviation industry, from reducing fuel costs to better utilizing maintenance crews. But it won't be easy.

The Internet of Things (IoT) offers the potential to create new business models, streamline business processes and reduce costs in industries ranging from bioresearch to petroleum production.

One industry ripe for IoT-driven improvement is aviation. A McKinsey Global Institute report cites the potential impact of IoT in the sky as being anywhere from $900 million to $2.3 billion by 2025.

It won't be easy. The aviation industry uses a complex patchwork of systems, thanks to a large and varied group of stakeholders. The airlines own the aircraft and ground maintenance; communications systems are owned and operated by telecom and satellite providers; the engines themselves may be owned by the manufacturer and leased out to the airlines; and flight operations are controlled by the likes of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and its European counterpart EuroControl. This multi-tenant set-up makes it tough to deliver the comprehensive services demanded by IoT technologies.

A major piece of the puzzle is Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), a system that uses GPS signals to determine the location of aircraft. There are many land-based ADS-B systems in North American, Europe and metropolitan areas around the world. But there is no coverage in remote areas such as over oceans, mountains, deserts or the poles.

These gaps in coverage explain why a plane such as Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 can seemingly ;disappear from the face of the earth. A plan is in place, however, to erect scores of satellites around the globe which will be able to pinpoint airline locations everywhere.

Establishing an IoT Infrastructure

"Ground-based ADS-B stations give limited coverage, but soon our coverage will be 100 percent," said Chip Downing, senior director of Aerospace Defense at Wind River, a subsidiary of Intel which has an operating system that is used by many airlines.

This satellite network is being installed by Aireon, which is part of satellite communications provider Iridium. According to Iridium, airline fuel savings alone could amount to $8 billion by 2030.

Savings will result from combining ADS-B data with engine IoT information, weather data and information from all other planes in the vicinity, then analyzing the data in near real time to make better decisions about altitudes, route planning, velocity, the influence of wind and maintenance schedules.

"This means you don't need a manned controller looking at a radar screen to keep flights separated," said Downing. "As a result, planes can fly closer while maintaining safety."

Many ADS-B devices run on top of a Wind River operating system known as VxWorks. An edge management system known as Wind River Helix Device Cloud collects data from sensors or devices and puts it into the cloud for analysis.

Speedier Data Analysis

Older systems used to gather the data, process it, store it and then send it elsewhere for analysis, Downing explained. That is too slow for the needs of IoT. Now data is siphoned off at the point it is generated, he said. One feed goes on the normal route and the other goes directly to the point of analysis in the cloud.

"To be accurate and responsive enough, you need to go directly to the cloud and not just via control systems," Downing said. "That way, we are able to send the control system alerts or guidance in near-real time."

Such systems make it possible to analyze data mid-flight rather than waiting to download it all upon landing. This allows engineers to tune engines more precisely, alter flight paths to avoid bad weather, take advantage of better winds on a slightly different course and, perhaps most importantly, set up maintenance actions on the ground so that crews are ready well in advance of the plane's arrival.

IoT Platforms

Wind River and Intel are putting the pieces together for a platform that will underpin other systems. Engine supplier GE Aviation and airline OEM Boeing, for example, can plug their various applications on top of Wind River VxWorks.

"Many vendors can add new capabilities and create a richer aviation environment using IoT data," Downing said.

Another company lining up its IoT platform for use in aviation is Pivotal with its Big Data Suite. Its approach, said Raghvender Arni, senior director, Platform Strategy at Pivotal, is to provide the analytics capabilities and platform, and let airline specialists build what they need on top of it. It works with the likes of GE Aviation and Honeywell to help them deal with up to 1 terabyte of data per flight.

"That number is growing all the time as GE continues to add more sensors to its jet engines," said Arni. "The company wants a finer grained view of what is happening inside its engine."

Transmitting, storing and digesting that amount of data with so many planes landing every minute of every day can be daunting. One current approach to dealing with bandwidth limitations is to perform some lightweight data processing and analysis mid-flight and upload the bulk of the data into a Hadoop data store once the plane lands. The tradeoff between the desire to send the data and the cost of doing so is throttling down an all-out IoT aviation data torrent.

"We have not yet figured out who pays and how to lower the cost of bandwidth for IoT," said Arni. "Yet despite that, we hear stories such as Air Asia saving $10 million using GE Flight Efficiency Services."

Pivotal has also been working to mask the complexity of Hadoop by putting a simpler Cloud Foundry layer on top of its Big Data Suite. GE's Predix platform uses Cloud Foundry to enable simpler SQL queries on the data.

"Clients and engineers can run queries, analysis and reports without being a Hadoop expert," Arni said.

The attractiveness and potential payback is luring many IoT players to look to the air. Another company building an IoT platform which can be used in aviation is PTC.

"We are embedding new IoT functionality into airplanes," said JP Provencher, senior director solution management, PTC, "Airlines need an IoT platform that connects to everything and eliminates the silos that currently exist."

IoT-enabled Transformation

Everyone these days seems to like talking about next generation services, and the aviation field is no exception. But in this case, it really is a major step change in capabilities. Advances like ADS-B are the tip of the iceberg. The FAA’s Next Gen Navigation Plan 2014 lays out a large number of technologies and upgrades that seek to completely re-architect the current system and establish one that can cope with 21st century air travel and traffic loads, as well as IoT data streams.

"IoT is going to play a big role in transforming industries such as aviation," said Provencher. "You will begin to see smarter, more connected products, systems, manufacturing and operations."

Drew Robb is a freelance writer specializing in technology and engineering. Currently living in Florida, he is originally from Scotland, where he received a degree in geology and geography from the University of Strathclyde. He is the author of Server Disk Management in a Windows Environment (CRC Press).

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