It is still remarkable when you board a flight, after trying to squeeze a few final minutes out of the airport WiFi connection, when you see that your aircraft has its own internet connection. Although the technology to connect an aircraft to wireless internet-providing satellites has been around for the best part of the last ten years, the global fleet rollout is less than half of global seat capacity, yet the in-flight connectivity market is set to increase from US$1.5bn in 2020 to over US$5bn by 2027. However, evolving technology is taking the concept of a ‘connected aircraft’ further and deeper than simply allowing passengers to scroll through their Instagram feed at 35,000 feet.

In-flight connectivity

Accessing an internet connection in the sky requires the individual aircraft to be connected to a transmission source, via satellite (when travelling over water or areas of poor connectivity) and via radio tower (when travelling over land with good cellular service). JetBlue became somewhat of a cult icon when introducing the ‘randome’ in 2015 – a radar system which protruded in a dome on the top of their aircraft which connected to satellite-based WiFi services to allow its passengers to surf the internet and stay connected with work during their flights. Emirates uses Inmarsat satellite connections to stream live television and sporting fixtures to their A380 and 777 fleet. In fact, in-flight internet connections have become so advanced that you may not even notice you’re in the air when accessing online services. Many US carriers now offer universal (and increasingly free) WiFi across their fleets, as it has now become a minimum expectation for domestic passengers on short-haul flights to remain online for the duration of their flight.

Collecting data from the sky

While passengers can connect using these systems, the aircraft itself also needs to communicate with the ground. The current system is considered slow and archaic – the Aircraft Communications and Reporting System (ACARS) and the Aircraft Condition Monitoring System (ACMS) both have limited bandwidth and use radio frequencies to send text-only messages back to ground staff. In an age where passengers can experience ‘on-ground’ internet speeds and video streaming with virtually no buffering lag, the aviation industry can harness this technology for improvements in aircraft management, instead of using an antiquated reporting system created in 1978.

The idea of the ‘connected aircraft’ is to use the existing network of satellite broadband connectivity (and the incoming 5G infrastructure) to report on a number of parameters of collected data. An aircraft can collect over 164,000 parameters of data during a single flight, but only a limited amount of this data is used, both in-flight and once the aircraft is on the ground (partly due to the limited turn-around time to get the aircraft on its next leg). The Internet of things (IoT) is the ability to connect objects to the Internet by creating nodes to transfer data to / from those objects without human intervention. IoT can enable the collected aircraft data to be used by ground teams, for example to facilitate maintenance issues to be dealt with as soon as the aircraft lands. Etihad, for example, has been rolling out high-speed broadband and mobile connectivity solutions across its fleet since 2014, which are primarily implemented for passenger connectivity, but can open up the possibility for the fleet managers and maintenance teams to benefit from those systems if they can offload data about fuel consumption, engine health and so on.

The data can also increase flight efficiency – live weather and turbulence conditions can be sent directly from the aircraft to a routing ground team, who can divert the aircraft over calmer conditions, which both improves passenger experience and can create fuel savings. If such fuel savings can be rolled out over an entire fleet of aircraft, the potential monetary saving can positively impact an airline’s balance sheet. The data can also inform recipients about wing condition, engine health and performance, fuel levels, component servicing requirements and so on.

Cash is king

The recent improvements to the in-flight entertainment (IFE) infrastructure has allowed faster Internet speeds to be achieved at up to 40,000 feet via direct satellite link, and thereby opening up new revenue streams for airlines. Operators can now charge passengers for providing Internet speeds, which would even be acceptable at ground-level. Airlines can also carry less weight on-board – the Duty Free trolley becomes redundant if customers can make their purchases over the Internet during their flight, and receive their goods once they land at their destination airport or even have products delivered directly to their home. Some airlines, such as SAS, have already implemented weight saving measures in the interests of meeting their emissions goals – implementing such a change in combination with an electronic alternative may help hit green aviation goals, whilst still maintaining passenger experience.

IoT can also open up new possibilities for maximising operational efficiencies by linking multiple systems together. If a flight is delayed for any reason, the connectivity of the aircraft to ground systems could automatically (through blockchain or other secure software system) obtain a new gate slot, allocate passengers on a connecting flight onto an alternative aircraft, ensure their baggage is transferred appropriately, and even issue them with a new boarding pass before they have left their seat. The current system requiring phone calls from the aircraft to the destination airport, manual computer inputs to reallocate passengers and a myriad of miscommunication amongst airside ground staff has (hopefully) met its redundancy with 21st century technology.

Making airports smarter

The blue sky idea of a ‘smart’ airport is also coming closer towards fruition as IoT technology improves. The idea is that the amount of human interaction from arriving at the airport to boarding and departing on your flight is minimised, allowing quicker but more sophisticated security system to verify the identities and track passengers on their journey through an airport. Delta and British Airways have both run trials of this process, which uses a series of cameras and sensors to identify passengers using photographs to create a biometric template (or add data points to a pre-existing template) of each individual, and uses that as a ‘boarding pass’ to verify each passenger as they pass through security checkpoints, boarding gates and to permit access to the bridge to board your specific flight. The long-term vision is to be able to go from car park to aircraft without interacting with any human personnel. In response to the health and safety concerns arising from air travel during the Covid pandemic, Emirates have developed a ‘biometric path’ at Dubai Airport from check-in to boarding gate (including entry into Business and First Class lounges) for a ‘contactless’ journey onto the aircraft. Although this sounds very ‘I, Robot’, the overarching security benefit is that AI analysis on identity and security decisions is less likely to make mistakes than humans working long shifts and undertaking repetitive tasks, who may let certain individuals slip through the net without realising. There is also a dual benefit of being more sanitary, since there are less human sources of spreading germs whilst touching passports and boarding passes – rather than being passed around by multiple airport staff, they stay firmly within the traveller’s possession at all times.

Airports are a complex web of interconnecting pieces, which require modern systems to keep up with the rapid pace of operations. IoT can open up efficiencies, which were previously more challenging to track. For example, GPS tracking on all airport vehicles such as tugs, power units, cargo transporters and catering vehicles can give precise location data at all times, but smart sensors can feed back information about temperature, maintenance status, load weight and fuel levels (or charge status for future EVs). Tracking these becomes even more important as we move towards fully autonomous, electric vehicles operating air-side within airports. Autonomous vehicles running within set perimeters and on pre-set routes and speeds will assist with decreasing the number of accidents, and will reduce the number (and in turn, the risk) of those staff on the ground who are operating around heavy machinery and fuel systems required to support commercial air travel.

Concluding thoughts

The idea of the future of aviation is an exciting one, designed to make passenger experience seamless on their journey and to make aircraft operators’ functions more efficient and cost-effective. There are, however, a number of overshadowing issues for the players involved in creating the ‘connected aircraft’ to consider, namely: data privacy and cybersecurity, scaling of hardware and software infrastructure, procuring and maintaining current data technologies, hiring data engineers and coders, funding these projects and obtaining a positive return on their investment. Aviation operators will need to come up with a strategy to future-proof their business model and maintain an edge over competitors, whilst preserving profitability. The investment in infrastructure must be coupled with tangible financial benefit in the form of efficiencies in order to save on costs for fleet management, maintenance bills and staff costs in managing passengers, which can be done more effectively through digital systems.

Opening up the data pipeline to and from the aircraft and airports opens up a variety of opportunities for on-board flight crews, fleet managers, maintenance engineers, refuelling technicians, air traffic control, airport ground staff and so on. These developments enable the aircraft to become a more versatile hub for the production, transmission and receipt of data, and each one has the potential to become a ‘node’ on a much larger and more interconnected network of global aircraft. IoT technology and increasingly more reliable and higher speed Wi-Fi connections (which are only going to improve with 5G connectivity) enable new links with the end-to-end operations within airports, and between an airplane’s previously inanimate components and equipment, to immediately send, receive and analyse data. We are excited to see how IoT modernises the aviation industry, and the potential uses that the visionaries and creatives of the airlines come up with to start the chain reaction of ‘connected aircraft’.