Could Airliners Use An FMS In The Cloud?

data illustration
GE’s TrueCourse connected FMS and cloud FMS link a pilot’s electronic flight bag (EFB), air traffic control (ATC), air operations centers (AOC) and data analytics programs.
Credit: GE Aviation

Why should the flight management system on an aircraft’s flight deck know more about what is going on than people on the ground who are supporting the flight?

  • NASA study seeks to improve air-to-ground connectivity for airliners
  • The project could further the FAA’s NextGen vision
  • Advanced air mobility sector might be first to tap cloud-based flight management

A flight management system (FMS) in the cloud—accessed over a secure internet connection (similar to VPN) to a cloud service such as Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure—could change this by providing a digital twin on the ground synced up to the one on the flight deck. The ground-based FMS in the cloud would be connected to a variety of data not available on the flight deck, such as higher-resolution weather information.

SmartSky Networks, GE Aviation and Mosaic ATM are working on the second phase of experimentation with NASA, which has funded the companies via a NASA innovation award, to see how an FMS in the cloud might work.

SmartSky, a startup based in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, launched initial service with its new air-to-ground connectivity network in June 2021 in what it calls the Southeast corridor—13 states in the Southeast U.S. including Florida. The service provides bidirectional connectivity for business jets and turboprops. The nationwide rollout was completed at the end of July this year.

Todd Kilbourne, senior program manager for Mosaic, notes that the FAA uses many ground-based automation systems for air traffic control, air traffic management and flight operations. These all use different, customized trajectory models for their calculations. “I have been working on traffic modernization programs for 25 years, and I constantly hear people say, ‘I wish we had more information from the aircraft,’” Kilbourne tells Aviation Week.

Syncing with the Ground

But as it turns out, what the FMS knows mostly stays on the flight deck. The three partners in this simulation and flight-test program would like to change that.

The first phase of the study was a NASA Small Business Innovation Research program effort in a lab at SmartSky Networks. This phase simulated an FMS on a flight deck syncing up data with an FMS in the cloud located on the ground. Mosaic ATM wrote the software for the feasibility project, and the results were shown to NASA in February 2021. Mosaic ATM of Leesburg, Virginia, is a leading U.S. company conducting research and development of new concepts for air traffic management.

A few months later, the team of Mosaic and SmartSky joined by GE Aviation secured funding for Phase 2. The GE unit in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was acquired from Smiths Aerospace in 2007.

The FMS in the cloud team is now using a new modular GE TrueCourse FMS during simulations and flight tests with a SmartSky King Air. The FMS on the experimental test flights will be used in shadow mode; it will not control the aircraft. The new FMS is about to be certified, and it is planned to enter the airline market first, followed by the military, business aviation and rotorcraft sectors. New modules are intended to be substituted, such as one with a rotorcraft performance database to accommodate the dynamics of helicopters or electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) vehicles. The modular architecture allows GE to scale the capability of its new FMS up or down to meet the needs of a particular model airframe, while much of the software remains standardized to reduce the cost of customization.

traditional control display units
The TrueCourse FMS uses two traditional control display units (on the center console) and can also be utilized through touch-screen displays. Credit: GE Aviation

The new FMS, dubbed True-Course by GE, is a modular design that meets DO-178 standards developed by the RTCA and the European Organization for Civil Aviation Equipment (Eurocae). The modularity of the functions is enabled by reusable components with their own artifacts that allow for easier updating. The FMS is configured for easy adaptation to new features on different aircraft platforms. A multifunction control display unit and a flight management computer are not needed, as their functions can be included in the touch-screen control.

Gary Goz, senior director of product management for GE Aviation Systems, says that once computing power for avionics is installed on the flight deck, “it becomes antiquated very quickly.” This makes it hard to add new capability and functionality to an FMS. So although safety-critical tasks must be performed on the aircraft, non-safety-critical tasks can be moved offboard, as pilots do with flight planning on electronic flight bags (EFB).

Trajectory Negotiations 

Kilbourne says the first phase of the project showed that the SmartSky network could make a digital-twin FMS in the cloud work. The second phase is focusing on demonstrating trajectory negotiations, with an eye toward the FAA’s NextGen vision of implementing trajectory-based operations (TBO).

The cloud FMS concept alleviates the need to download potentially proprietary information such as aircraft weight to a ground automation system to improve trajectory-modeling performance. Simulations of trajectory negotiations are slated to start at a SmartSky lab in Sterling, Virginia, in August. After tests with three simulated aircraft, flight tests with one aircraft and two simulated aircraft are expected to start in the fall. Other use cases are planned to be simulated later.

“The connected solution between the air and the ground is very important, and it can solve a lot of problems,” Goz says. “So the cloud FMS concept we’re proving out is really part of a larger ecosystem we envision at GE. There are a lot of other things we are looking at.”

For example, the company plans to load on pilots’ EFBs flight plans that are in the FMS in the cloud. “The pilots will have the same data at their fingertips to make decisions about trajectories and deconfliction,” Goz says.

Brit Wanick, vice president of marketing and partnership for SmartSky, says his company’s network provides high bandwidth, low latency and bidirectional capability, enabling it to transfer data at equal rates to and from the aircraft. The SmartSky network uses beam-forming technology, which provides a separate connection for each aircraft, delivering more secure and stable performance. The technology has benefits for inflight entertainment as well, providing real-time responsiveness for livestreaming, large file transfers, video conferencing and gaming.

In addition to supplying the network, SmartSky is interested in the FMS in the cloud as a service if it develops into a product. Mosaic is in the business of researching how to use airspace more effectively, and GE is looking for innovative uses for its new TrueCourse FMS.

The FAA aims to institute TBO as the next step in its NextGen airspace modernization. TBO involves the exchange of data on the precise 4D trajectory (latitude, longitude, altitude and time) of each aircraft. Air and ground systems will exchange this data, and aircraft will use performance-based navigation to fly on exact coordinates in space and time. TBO is intended to smooth out imbalances between traffic demand and capacity.

Moving toward the next step in TBO—managing flight plan changes across air traffic control boundaries—a Mosaic ATM team is working with an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University testbed on multiregional TBO in a project sponsored by the FAA NextGen office, Kilbourne says. This involves TBO tasks in more than one en route sector across more extended timelines.

A key objective of the FMS-in-the-cloud experiments is to create a capability for exchanging even more precise trajectory information than is possible with an FMS on the flight deck.

“The FMS in the cloud can process a multitude of variations as well as access data not available on the flight deck,” Wanick notes. “The flight deck doesn’t have access to information on the other aircraft in the airspace. In addition, the FMS in the cloud has access to significant computing power through Google or Amazon and third-party data that can be synthesized and used in the cloud.”

For example, SmartSky already has access to real-time and historic turbulence data that might affect an aircraft’s route. This data is available to SmartSky through a partnership with the International Air Transportation Association (IATA). SmartSky is using IATA’s Turbulence Aware platform, which measures energy/eddy dissipation rate (EDR) observed in flight by aircraft of 20 airlines. EDR is a turbulence metric based on the rate at which energy dissipates in the atmosphere.

The EDR measurement characterizes turbulence in the atmosphere to help aircrews find smooth air. SmartSky has exclusive rights to distribute this information to business aviation customers through a product named SmoothSky. If there is not an observation on the desired route at a particular time, the user can access a report from the aircraft that was in the area most recently. By alerting aircrews to turbulence, the service helps business jet operators avoid crew or passenger injury while providing a more comfortable ride—ensuring there are no whitecaps on the martinis, as the old business aviation saying puts it.

This sort of data could be synced up with planning a reroute or a request for a different altitude that an airline dispatcher or fractional-jet operations center could transmit to the flight deck. Dispatchers could explore different trial flight plans using the cloud version before selecting one and communicating with the pilots in the cockpit to obtain their approval.

Advanced Air Mobility

The partners in this project also are focused on the potential to use FMS in the cloud with eVTOL vehicles and other advanced air mobility (AAM) aircraft. The FMS in the cloud might be adopted more quickly in that segment, where everything is new, Kilbourne says. Initially, pilots will be onboard passenger air taxis to monitor systems, but eventually pilots are expected to be remote, and autonomy will be relied on more heavily.

The required command-and-control links for eVTOLs and other AAM aircraft are in the process of being standardized. FMS in the cloud data could provide many types of data needed for routing, planning optimization and rerouting due to events such as a closed vertiport.

One question NASA seeks to answer is how long the digital twin FMS will remain synchronized with the one on the flight deck. That can be determined by observing when the FMS in the cloud provides a different trajectory prediction for the aircraft than the FMS on the flight deck.

The FMS in the cloud is also applicable to business aviation. “There is significant interest in this in business aviation as there is a shortage of pilots,” Wanick says. “So being able to augment the capability for aircraft to fly in a dual- or single-pilot configuration will improve safety and utilization of the aircraft, which is important to everyone from a business or private owner up to corporations.”

Ground Cloud Capacity

Goz expects that use of FMS-in-the-cloud services via connectivity will be so widespread that while the FMS will remain on the flight deck as a safety backup, it will be used more like a standby display is today. It will be there, but pilots will only use it in situations where they need it.

FMS control display unit and navigation display
The TrueCourse FMS connects the electronic flight bag (upper left), the FMS control display unit (lower right) and navigation display (center). Credit: GE Aviation

The digital-twin FMS in the cloud is maintained at Ashburn, Virginia, in Loudoun County near Washington, where data centers handle 70% of the world’s internet traffic. Dozens of data centers were built there when rural land was cheap, but now it costs $1 million per acre. Loudoun County has 1 gigawatt of overall data center capacity, with London a distant second.

GE recognizes the industry’s concern around cloud connectivity to the cockpit and the security of EFB systems that can share data with an FMS. Cybersecurity will be a top issue going forward with the FMS in the cloud. GE’s product security group is embedded as part of the FMS in the Cloud project team, working to identify and document risks that need to be addressed. The GE FMS treats data received through the cloud FMS or while connected to an EFB as untrusted data sources that have to be validated and presented to the pilot, who can accept or reject it.

The FAA plans to employ automation-driven, time-based flight trajectories negotiated among the agency, aircraft operators and stakeholders. Based on this, it is not surprising that SmartSky, Mosaic and GE are experimenting with FMS in the cloud, which can enable such trajectory negotiations. Goz says the FAA may be interested in FMS in the cloud because of the increased accuracy of trajectory predictions that would provide benefits to a variety of FAA automation systems.

The pilots will be busy flying the aircraft while planners on the ground at an airline dispatch office or business jet fleet managers determine reroutes as needed. And they will have access to vast computing power from the likes of Google or Amazon to crunch numbers, including a lot of data such as more precise weather observations or forecasts not easily digested at 35,000 ft.