Pilots get electronic flight bag
Everything but the sandwiches
Considering the technical complexity of modern commercial aircraft and the operational complexities of running any airline service, it may seem surprising - especially to anyone steeped in the ways of business and/or operational automation - to consider the level to which a commitment to paper is maintained.
Most of the documentation associated with getting a modern jet off the deck and safely back down again is still based on paper.
There are some very good reasons for this, not least that paper-based operational procedures are still remarkably robust in terms of auditing adherence to procedures that can make the difference between life and death. But automation and online "paperless" operations are now at last starting to creep in to the process.
One company that is pushing to make this happen is a small, newish UK-based outfit, Evoke Systems, which was one of the demo case studies selected by Microsoft at the Vista launch. The company's primary product for now is an Electronic Flight Operations System (EFOS), a hosted, web-based back office system offered to airlines on a subscription basis. But it has a new product in development and due to be launched by the end of this year, that will take some of that back office system onto the flight deck.
This is an Electronic Flight Bag (EFB), which aims to soak up some of the paper that the flight crews have to take on board with them. "Some documents, such as quick reference handbook emergency procedures, will need to remain on paper as that is the most robust form available," Evoke technical director Craig Howard said.
"But is getting information such as flight plans, journey logs, discretion air safety reports and the like that need to be filled in at the end of a flight by the crew. Today, they make their way back to the office in envelopes."
With even smallish airlines flying just a 100 or so sectors a day, that represents a great deal of re-keying work - from hand written information - that has to be completed by back office staff. "And that is before you look at what the cabin crew are doing. They have similar training requirements and information demands, including things like stock control, in-flight incidents such as passenger medical conditions," Howard added.
EFOS is designed to handle the information that passes between back offices and flight crews – flight plans, operational manuals for the airlines, training manuals, aircraft manuals. Traditionally, they have all been paper documents. But here version control has always been a problem. The CAA requires airlines to submit audits of who has got what version of which manual, and the whole process has until now been paper-based and manually operated. This can include pilots having to sign (and sometimes post) forms saying they have read documents.
EFBs are not actually a new idea, and current types fall into three categories – Classes 1, 2 and 3. Class 1 are carry-on devices and not part of the aircraft. Class 2 are mounted in the aircraft and can take a data feed from the avionics, and Class 3 are an integral part of the avionics. The key factor is they are used to run performance management software, advising on issues such as required take-off power, and electronic charts such as taxiways and approach flight paths.
Evoke views EFBs differently from the rest of the industry. It decided the right target was to computerise the documentation and information that pilots carry with them in their traditional flight bags – crew notes, relevant aircraft data, personal journey logs, and flight-specific paperwork. These form the core communications necessary between flight crew and airline back office.
If the Captain is conducting on-the-job flight training of junior officers, they also carry their own and the trainee's records. To speed up back office management here, Evoke is aiming to add online training records management as part of the EFB.
"Each pilot has to undertake a number of formal training exercises every year and these must be available for audit at any time," Howard said. "This does, however, demand that each pilot has access to a laptop system - either issued on a per trip basis, or as their own machine."
Evoke is again opting for a web-based user interface, with the Tablet PC as the primary target platform. It has been using the Tablet PC extensions built into Vista in its development work. "Much of the data being captured by the crew is numeric, and is therefore easier to capture by pen," Howard said. "In a flight deck environment It is easier to write 'flight level 350' than click on a box with a mouse, so the pen interface has worked very well, and better than the keyboard for much of the work, though for lengthier reports they do really need a full keyboard as well."
This does mean crews carrying Tablet PCs around with them and the company has looked at holding relevant data held on USB memory sticks as an option, but feels there are better solutions. Some airlines are looking at this as something to plug into the on-board EFBs, but Howard indicated there are numerous inherent problems with that.
"Crew can lose memory sticks, and there is the issue of validating the memory stick being inserted to check it has no viruses or that it is the company's device and not a personal one."
There can also be problems if systems are updated, when memory sticks may suddenly be seen as incompatible devices.
"The more elegant solution is for the pilots to carry the system with them, and to have an internet connection available wherever they are. Most of the major airports now have at least 3G mobile communications and they use it the same way that passengers are allowed to use their mobile phones," he said.
The current back office system is hosted by a professional hosting company, Rackspace, which holds the central database and applications. The laptops will essentially be running an offline subset of the airline's database together with their own specific data, in much the same way that anyone can use Microsoft Outlook offline, connecting and synchronising as required.
Future developments in airline training also make the EFB an attractive proposition. For example, the Alternative Training Qualification Program, a Joint Aviation Authorities initiative, is being set up to monitor the quality of training by analysing training data trends. This is designed to show how pilots are improving and developing. It also covers flight data monitoring such as fuel burn rates etc. "This is ideal for Evoke as we are already collecting all the data," he said. ®