When American Airlines became the first U.S. carrier to gain FAA approval to use iPads for all phases of flight in 2012, other airlines quickly followed suit. The clamor for a low-cost, off-the-shelf, consumer-grade portable tablet for electronic documents and charts appeared to sound the death knell for the heavier, vastly more expensive installed electronic flight bags (EFB) that had been filling that role for more than a decade.

Fast-forward three years, however, and the legacy EFB industry has not only remained solvent but has morphed into what will likely be an essential element in the next-generation cockpit for older-generation jets. The rebirth is being kindled in part because EFBs can be a lower-cost alternative platform to run NextGen applications such as in-trial procedures or to meet mandates—including controller-pilot data link communications—and also because EFB providers have diversified into offering server systems that tap into aircraft data and provide secure data storage.

“Tablets themselves do certain things exceedingly well,” says Chad Cundiff, president of Astronautics Corp. of America. “But there are gaps and struggles for the airlines—maintaining the configuration, losing them, breaking them, getting them stolen, making sure they have what you need to have on them.”

Configuration control aside, giving tablets access to aircraft data broadens the portfolio of available applications to include airport moving maps, satellite weather, electronic technical logs and route profile optimization for fuel savings and other “non-certified” applications, along with the standard electronic document and static charts. 

But the devices cannot be used to run applications that pilots use for communicating with controllers via data link or navigating the aircraft. That rules out NextGen routines based on Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) “In” capability with which airlines will likely equip in the future. Although not mandated, the business case for NextGen is largely dependent on airlines voluntarily equipping with ADS-B In to take advantage of safety and fuel- and time-saving processes that include in-trail procedures, interval management, merging and spacing, and surface management. Higher-end EFBs can be used for those tasks, however, leading many airlines to consider a mix of installed and portable devices.

As evidence of the staying power of the reinvented EFB, one of the newest single-aisle commercial airliners, the Bombardier CSeries, has a factory option for dual 12.1-in. touchscreen EFBs built by Esterline CMC Electronics, even though the new cockpit is adorned with five 15.1-in. displays belonging to the most advanced Rockwell Collins integrated avionics suite available. Also an option is CMC’s Aircraft Information Servers (AIS). Why? 

CSeries Vice President and General Manager Robert Dewar says some airlines want to standardize across fleets that already have installed EFBs. But there is also a future-proofing aspect of the nascent ADS-B In application. While those new applications could be hosted in the forward panel, “then you’d have to pay fees to the integrated avionics companies,” says Dewar. Legacy EFB providers have a slight edge because their systems are not in the forward field of view of the pilot and hence can be less costly to update, even though the devices can be certified as an additional avionics display. That makes the EFB an ideal candidate to host NextGen applications, which are evolving and progressing as ADS-B “Out” surveillance comes into force via mandates globally and airlines, albeit slowly, begin purchasing ADS-B In equipment as well. 

New models for software security are also giving traditional EFBs more flexibility. The Astronautics Corp. of America’s Nexis Flight-Intelligence System has software-only partitioning that allows operators to have certified and non-certified (consumer) applications running simultaneously in the same side display unit. The non-certified side can often be updated or loaded with no recertification, reducing costs and giving airlines the freedom to write their own applications. “On the forward display, no one is going to let you touch that code,” says Cundiff. “If you want a change, you have to go back through the [original equipment manufacturer] and decide on a certification plan. The bill you get at the end is going to have a lot of zeros on the end of it.”

While debate continues about the form and function of the ultimate solution, EFB providers see a new middle ground emerging where tablets, largely iPads and Microsoft Surface models, can work in tandem with modernized EFBs and servers to gain a holism for efficiency on flight decks. Many airlines are considering a phased approach, starting with tablets and servers and evolving into tablets, servers and EFBs when ADS-B In applications mature.

The FAA is evolving its stance as well and is expected to better align its EFB nomenclature with the European Aviation Safety Agency in new guidance to be issued potentially as soon as May. EFBs are currently categorized as having a hardware class (Class 1 is portable, Class 2 is partially connected and Class 3 is used as a multifunction display) and a software type (Type A for electronic documents, Type B for charts and Type C for avionics-grade applications). Under the new designations, there will either be portable EFBs that run Type A and Type B software or fully certified installed EFBs that have software partitions to run certified and non-certified applications.

Three main EFB providers in North America provided a snapshot of how each is handling the emerging new models.  

UTC Aerospace Systems (UTAS) has approximately 100 Class 3 EFBs in operation and another 1,000 Class 2s, but its current focus is largely on selling interface and server equipment to allow airlines to use their thousands of tablets for efficiency applications, effectively making the devices Class 2 EFBs. They do that by installing tablet interface modules (TIM) to supply power and a data connection, either wired or Bluetooth, between the tablet and an Aircraft Interface Device (AID), a server that taps into aircraft data. “The majority of our focus is the tablet-based market, and the tablet interface seems to be where the energy is,” says Jim Tuitt, UTAS director of business development. “We have a growth-path strategy with tablets—start with power and grow to more connections, all the way up to a purpose-built UTAS SmartDisplay (EFB) that can be used for satellite communications and an Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (Acars).”

Tuitt says the path gives customers options to “grow into the system they need,” a path that is less risky because tablets cost less than EFBs. “This allows airlines to install a certified ADS-B-In-capable system a little bit farther down the road, when standards and concepts of operation are better defined,” he says. “All the apps for efficiencies can be done with a tablet today.”

United Airlines selected the TIM and AID for its Airbus A320 fleet initially, but it has not yet made a decision regarding its Boeing 737 and 777 models, says Tuitt. UTAS certified the A320 modification in May 2014 and installations are underway. When rolled out across the fleet, the 12,000 pilots that United equipped with company-bought iPads will have access to a broader number of applications, including inflight satellite weather. Tuitt says airlines are interested in having more users interact with the systems as well, including maintenance teams and flight attendants who could use tablets and the server to enter galley or seat issues into a technical log.

Although because of a software certification level the tablets cannot be used for NextGen ADS-B In applications, Tuitt says the installed hardware can be the first step toward a solution that will include an installed EFB, preferably the company’s G500 or G700 SmartDisplay EFBs, when the carrier needs ADS-B In applications. Tuitt says the G700, UTAS’s newest EFB, has the “look and feel” of an iPad, with capacitive-based pinch and zoom and hand-rotation input. The company’s earlier EFBs use resistive touch. “The feedback from customers was that they want to interact with the EFB the same way they would with an iPad or Microsoft Surface tablet,” says Tuitt.

CMC is also putting heavy emphasis on installed Aircraft Information Servers (AIS) that will allow airlines to get the most out of their low-cost tablets while promoting its multitouch capacitive EFB displays. “We’re challenged by the advance of tablets; we have to recognize it,” says Jean-Marie Begis, product line director for EFB and aircraft wireless systems at CMC. “On the other hand, we’re able to enable those tablets with application servers that will satisfy a number of regulatory but also practical requirements such as updates, control and configuration of software.”

One very practical consideration for installing a server is that when crews lose or break their tablets, the server—which has all the updated content—can be used to download the needed material onto a new device. CMC says its AIS products, part of the PilotView Crew Information System, are “getting good traction overall,” particularly a new compact, flange-mounted AIS that is located in the aircraft’s avionics bay and works wirelessly with tablets that can mimic many EFB functions. Those functions can include charting, electronic documentation, en route real-time weather moving maps, terrain awareness, camera surveillance, and aircraft data monitoring and reporting. A managed network switch segregates data flowing to the cockpit, cabin and maintenance users. AIS uses the “latest and greatest” secure network technologies, in part from the banking industry, says Begis.

The company’s 12.1-in. display size has brought a lot of unexpected interest from different markets, says Begis, with part of the popularity owing to the display’s capacitive-based multitouch capability. Like UTAS, CMC’s legacy screens use resistive technology (the company has 4,000 EFBs in the field) but Begis says multitouch is now seen as a basic requirement in the requests for proposals (RFP) it receives from airlines.

Astronautics is focused more on smaller (6 X 8-in.) touchscreens that are fully integrated (Class 3) to the aircraft with its Nexis family of products, first certified in early 2014. Launch customer Virgin America is in the process of installing the systems on its A320 fleet, to be completed in the first quarter of 2016. Included in each aircraft are two resistive-based multifunction displays and two servers. The company has delivered more than 1,000 EFBs and is the forward-fit provider for Class 3 EFBs for Boeing’s widebody fleet. Engineers are researching multitouch capability and other human-machine interface modalities, including gesture and voice. The capabilities will not likely come with a large-format display. Cundiff says the prototype 17-in. display “did not sell well.”

RFPs from airlines typically include options for servers that connect to tablets, servers that connect to tablet docking stations and “full-on EFBs,” says Cundiff. The company has solutions that fit each need, but Cundiff sees the most long-term benefit from Class 3 capabilities. “Airlines like the functionality [the tablet solutions] bring, but if they get to the point where you’re doing ADS-B In, they’re not going to do that on a tablet,” he says. “Then they start looking at what is the right architecture for the future.” The ultimate architecture is a work in progress.

“Everyone is trying to make sense of it,” says Cundiff. “Right now, we’re trying to stay fairly agnostic. If you want to run your airline with a set of tablets, then take the flight server. You can wirelessly connect your tablets, you can get information in and out of the avionics system. You can network the maintenance guys with the pilots and with the crewmembers. You can upload and download information; you can store flight-critical information on the server so if the Surface becomes wiped, you can rewrite it before you fly.”

Along with allowing for NextGen applications, an installed EFB has other values, says Cundiff. “You do not have to worry about the flight crew forgetting it, and it is a low-cost way of getting some of that NextGen functionality as opposed to putting it on the forward displays, where retrofit can be pricey.”  

Editor's note: This article was edited to clarify which systems United Airlines has adopted for which aircraft.