The newfound ability to share and intelligently aggregate and evaluate onboard data with multiple other sources will affect nearly every aspect of aircraft design and operations in the very near future. 

From flight management systems (FMS) to brakes, Honeywell Aerospace believes that tapping into the connectivity options already commonplace in the consumer world will arguably give participating airlines a hefty edge on the competition in the near term and will significantly influence avionics system design in the longer term. 

“The biggest game-changer with connected aircraft is not the connectivity device itself, it’s that the systems on the aircraft are no longer limited by the boundaries of the aircraft,” says Bob Witwer, Honeywell’s vice president of advanced technology. “If you started with a clean-sheet design, what would you put on the aircraft and what would you put on the ground?” 

A key provider of avionics, auxiliary power units, engines and other aircraft systems, Honeywell is in the process of mentally reverse-engineering practically every component it builds to evaluate the potential impact of connectivity. While the benefits of connected weather radar, a capability the company recently certified as a software upgrade for its RDR-4000 weather radar, are fairly well established, others are increasingly coming to light—including brake life, auxiliary power unit health, air conditioning systems, avionics, flight planning and routing, and improved weather information to the flight management system. 

“There’s not one Honeywell product that does not have strategies impacted by connectivity,” says Carl Esposito, the vice president of strategy, marketing and product management for Honeywell. While the connected weather radar is being rolled out, he says a number of other connectivity projects are in various stages of concept testing, customer evaluations or demonstrations. “We’re testing things, getting customer feedback on the economic value of this technology,” Esposito says. 

A connected auxiliary power unit (APU) trial is underway with an unnamed Asian long-haul carrier, with the APU self-reporting operational hours for automatic billing purposes. The company also plans to begin reporting APU health information, including vibration levels, for preventative maintenance. 

The data is not only meant to benefit the bottom line for the airlines but in some cases for maintenance service providers such as Honeywell, which will receive usage data directly rather than after the fact from airlines. “Access to data can better determine if the price should be higher or lower,” says Bob Smith, chief technology officer for Honeywell Aerospace, regarding usage data on maintenance contracts and warranties.  

Smith is careful to distinguish Honeywell’s approach to connected aerospace applications—getting economic value out of ubiquitous data, sensing, computation and connectivity—from the generic “Internet of Things” term used in the consumer world. “It’s not about putting a new sensor on,” he says. “It’s about giving you emergent opportunities that have not existed prior.” 

He says the idea is to collect the data from sensors, systems and components Honeywell already provides and combine it with information from other sources to derive greater economic value from the data stream. For connected weather radar, the process can mimic Google maps, with participating airlines sharing data in order to gain additional capability—for example, a longer-range weather radar view by combining weather radar readings from other aircraft. 

For brakes, Honeywell envisions gathering information from onboard systems and other sources to better determine life, which decreases as the anti-oxidant coating on the devices comes into contact with deicing fluid. To extend the capability of the FMS, data from multiple weather sources on the ground could be joined with flight-deck data, processed through an application in the airline operations control center and uplinked to the flight deck to optimize performance, once pilots accept the input. “Sometimes all you need is a speed target as the output of a really complicated function to tell you how to fly efficiently,” says Witwer. 

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This story is a selection from the October 10, 2016 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology. New content posted daily online.

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The idea of moving certain computations outside of the cockpit—mirroring how we use smartphones—has certain benefits but also concerns. Witwer says connectivity will “lower the barriers and broaden the competitive space” for those who can serve the user, creating a new service economy. “With connectivity, you are not limited to the computing power and software on the aircraft, and it also changes who can potentially provide value to pilots,” he says. Applications that advise pilots on how to fly more efficiently would not have to meet the same software assurance levels as certified avionics, allowing for quick updates and changes. 

Cybersecurity will be a major focus, given the increased reliance on data. However, for connected services like FMS optimization, the safety of the aircraft will not be endangered (as the data input is advisory only and has to be accepted by the pilots,) but whether the input saves money on the mission could be at risk. 

Honeywell’s engineers are contemplating how a next-generation cockpit can take advantage of connectivity, particularly when it comes to the split between certified onboard avionics and the wealth of information that can come from the outside world. That flight deck will very likely operate under different models, driven in large part by the consumer experience. 

“I believe 10-20 years from now avionics will be substantially different—as different as what we experienced going to smartphones,” Witwer says.