How connected planes will disrupt the aviation sector

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Increased connectivity in airplanes could increase efficiency and reduce environmental effects, according to recent reports from the Sky High Economics study, a project from the London School of Economics for UK-based satellite company Inmarsat. ITU News caught up with Dr. Alexander Grous, author of the study and Lecturer and Researcher in the Department of Media and Communications at the LSE, about the technology enabling connected planes and how increased connectivity benefits the aviation industry and the environment.

Dr. Alexander Grous, London School of Economics

Why is digital transformation important for the aviation industry now?

Dr. Alexander Grous: The aviation industry is experiencing a step-change: technology is enabling greater efficiency, safety planning, visibility and responsiveness. This is essential if the industry is to meet demand: The International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecasts a doubling of passengers by 2035 to 7.2 billion, with this mirrored by a forecast doubling of aircraft to 40,000.

Digital will continue to be an enabler across the value chain of air travel, spanning pre-departure to post-landing, but facilitated by the current satellites that have ushered in an enhanced degree broadband capacity, reliability and speed to-and-from the plane.

This digital transformation is significant for two key reasons. First, it can contribute to ancillary revenue, with the first Sky High Economics Report in 2017 estimating an annual $30 billion contribution to airlines by 2035, averaging $4 per passenger and complementing other current ‘traditional’ ancillary revenue.

Second, a connected aircraft can deliver an estimated $15 billion per annum in operational savings by 2035 through dynamic route and flight optimization; maintenance benefits; just-in-time inventory and spares utilization; more efficient ATC management and others.

A significant potential saving is fuel, with efficiencies of over 1% per annum possible resulting in a reduction of $1.35 billion in fuel cost.

Savings of $7.6 billion could also occur through reduced delays and cancellations, cancellations and diversions through enhanced airspace management, safety improvements, automated flight planning and real-time reporting.

An additional $2 billion per annum could be achieved in maintenance, through predictive maintenance, in-flight health monitoring and fault reporting, and straight-through supply chain integration.

In an industry characterized by slower adoption and long-lead times for change, digital enablement today is essential to spurring changes required to accommodate significant growth that utilizes a relatively static airspace and infrastructure.

What is the role of satellites and the IoT in increasing airline connectivity?

Satellites are the enabler delivering enhanced connectivity to the airline industry. Improvements in aircraft design and engine efficiency will continue to occur, but satellite broadband to the cockpit and the cabin is the game-changer.

Although satellite connectivity exists today, this is limited in bandwidth and other attributes and does not facilitate the required degree of functionality that newer satellite broadband delivers. Wider adoption of high-capacity bandwidth will also integrate aircraft in the IoT as ‘nodes’ to both transmit and receive data that enhances their ecosystem in real-time.

Although IoT is in its infancy, some airlines are already trialing key aspects including forward flying aircraft transmitting accurate real-time weather data behind them, warning other flight crews of areas to avoid. This can reduce delays through alternative trajectories, lower turbulence injuries and damage, and conserve fuel.

As a node in the IoT, aircraft also transmit enhanced operational data permitting ground crews to schedule appropriate action ahead of time.

In addition, airspace management is improved: Iris, part of the ARTES program, has been testing high-capacity digital data links via satellite, transmitting data to cockpit crews in continental and oceanic airspace for ‘4D’ flight path control that can pinpoint an aircraft in four dimensions to enable precise tracking of flights and more efficient management of traffic.

What will increased connectivity of airline operations mean in practice?

Airline operations are already changing as a result of enhanced connectivity. This includes the installation of equipment on aircraft; ground-based changes to monitoring, reporting and operations; supplier integration, and others.

Flight and cabin crews are also adapting to the use of enhanced broadband that includes electronic flight bags via tablets that are replacing traditional pilot ‘brick briefcases,’ and how telemedicine is utilized on board with access to greater information, imaging, and other tools.

Maintenance departments can also utilize 3D imaging, remote diagnostics and other broadband enabled processes, while operational teams can lower weight through more accurate reconciliation of passenger numbers, preferences and catering.

Only when this end-to-end alignment occurs will the full benefits be realized, including lowering of inventory held as ‘spares’ with more accurate forecasting of predictive maintenance, and other areas.

What are the benefits of increased connectivity for the environment?

Increased connectivity results in a number of environmental benefits. IATA has adopted fuel efficiency targets of 1.5% per annum from 2009-2020, and a reduction in net CO2 by the industry of 50% by 2020 compared to 2005 levels.

A connected aircraft can reduce both fuel consumption and CO2. Some airlines are already achieving a 1% reduction in fuel through a connected aircraft, with our research forecasting that a 1-2% efficiency in fuel reduction could be attained longer term, resulting in a reduction of 3.39 billion liters per annum and two million tons of CO2.

In addition, a connected aircraft results in greater situational awareness that could result in lower separation between aircraft without compromising safety. This is required if the forecast doubling of traffic is accommodated in the same airspace.

More accurate real-time coordination between airports, airlines, ATC can also result in a more efficient use of infrastructure, minimizing the need to construct more airports and reducing environmental effects.

What more needs to be done to realize the benefits of connected planes?

The seeds of change are appearing, but this is a slow process as this is an industry characterized by caution and safety considerations.

It is important to continue with trials to validate the benefits that connected aircraft can bring to airspace management, and to widen this as quickly as possible into practical considerations such as reducing aircraft separation with regulators, ATC and the industry collaborating.

Airlines are the key to diffusing the benefits, but this is dependent on their business cases. We are seeing them increasingly incorporating both ancillary revenue and operational savings. This is beginning to occur more, driven by narrow margins, high costs and volatile fuel prices.

We also need to see more apps developed as has occurred in other digitally centric industries like banking that enable the benefits of greater connectivity to be operationalized. More attractive on-board digital offerings will also enhance the passenger experience and can generate both revenue and potentially loyalty, which is being assessed in a third report at present.

Dr. Alexander Grous is located in the Department of Media and Communications Department at the LSE. His areas of research include the socioeconomic impact of connectivity and air transport economics, with two recent reports produced on connectivity in this sector, Sky High Economics Chapter 1 and Chapter 2.

The original version of this article first appeared in ITU News

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