William Cecil has a robust history in avionics technology development and currently is Director, Aircraft Data & Edge Solutions at FLYHT Aerospace Solutions. FLYHT is known for delivering long range voice and data communication, new aircraft network edge technology and actionable intelligence solutions to airlines around the globe. We asked him a wide range of questions to see what we could learn not only about him and FLYHT, but his outlook for the industry.
First, let’s talk briefly about the last two years. It’s been a crazy time in aviation. How did the pandemic impact FLYHT?
FLYHT took the opportunity of this very quiet time in aviation to invest in building new services and avionics products to serve emerging requirements to upgrade current and legacy technologies. We grew the business in staff, products, services, geographic locations, and capabilities. I joined the company because my own vision was in perfect alignment with the direction the company was headed which intersected beautifully with the needs the industry would have as it recovered and beyond.
What strategies did the company use to survive that tumultuous time?
Shortly after the pandemic began, the company replaced the CEO with a veteran who did an inventory of people, tools, technologies and polled customers and prospects on what they saw as critical requirements for them to recover their businesses when the time came. From that came the definition of an onboard platform, the AFIRS Edge, and a suite of applications hosted on our AWS JetBridge platform that would help airlines recover as they merged post pandemic. We’ve executed on that, and we’re now enabling clients with Actionable Intelligence to the clients using data from their assets that is uniquely enhanced by our AFIRS technology.
How is the recovery going – are you optimistic?
We are very bullish about the demand from customers and adoption of our new and legacy products to help them achieve the incredible growth they need post pandemic with more reliable, more efficient operations. Our expanded product portfolio now gives airlines a major assist with digital transformation in Operational Technology and our expanded weather technologies positions airlines to meet growing ESG requirements. We have a full compliment of staff that have been building solutions and working with customers ahead of this recovery and we are in great shape to participate and help our customers achieve their goals.
You recently completed the first of 20 AFIRS 228S units on ARJ21 aircraft ordered by China Express Airlines. Tell us what that process was like, any challenges and where the program is going.
Everything that we have achieved over the years in China we refer to as dancing with elephants. The rules and processes required in China are very strict and missing a step can mean the end of a program. The ARJ program has been an investment we’ve been working on for over 10 years. We are proud our system was chosen to be installed on the first test aircraft that did cold weather testing in Canada and subsequently has been specified on every aircraft that China Express has on order. China Express has been a great partner in getting the necessary approvals from CAAC and it has been a pleasure to work with ADCC on tuning our AFIRS functionality to match requirements from the government.
Coral Jet has placed an initial order to become the launch customer for the AFIRS Edge, an aircraft interface device (AID). Tell us more about that product and its capabilities. FLYHT has been delivering Automatic Flight Information Reporting System (AFIRS) avionics and services to airlines for around 20 years, uniquely providing onboard analytics and voice and data communications using Iridium satellite connectivity.
FLYHT has been delivering Automatic Flight Information Reporting System (AFIRS) avionics and services to airlines for around 20 years, uniquely providing onboard analytics and voice and data communications using Iridium satellite connectivity. The AFIRS Edge is FLYHT’s answer for Industry 4.0 in aircraft avionics. It is a revolutionary digital avionics solution that leapfrogs and combines various legacy avionics used today. It’s easy to install and is available in two models that give airlines flexibility to use the same technology on both large transport category aircraft, regional and turboprop aircraft and even in the general aviation and UAV market.
Some avionics tech used today is old! Some avionics systems have been around for 10, 20 years or more and with multiple units from multiple suppliers and they are getting more costly to maintain. I coined the phrase a few years ago “floppies and fax modems” to describe Airborne Data Loader (ADL) technology based on 1.44 MB floppy disks still in use, and ACARS real-time messaging still the main data comm channel on aircraft. ACARS is essentially Telex over narrowband VHF and Satcom services (varying between 2.4 Kbps and 31.5 Kbps max). People outside of aviation are surprised to hear this. Other elderly systems currently in service include Aircraft Interface Devices (AIDs) that allow crew tablets to safely interact with aircraft data and connectivity and 2G/3G Wireless Quick Access Recorders (WQARs) which use dated cellular technology to harvest aircraft sensor and operational data in bulk post flight. And then there’s Aircraft Condition Monitoring Systems (ACMS) technology that dates back over 30 years that is used to perform onboard data analysis and in-flight reporting for health monitoring as well as weather and turbulence forecasting.
The AFIRS Edge is essentially an onboard edge computing and connectivity platform that provides or augments all the above functionality in a single unit. It brings new capabilities, new technologies and various industry firsts that will provide immense benefits for airlines. It has been exciting to guide our product strategy.
Can you explain some of these industry firsts?
Well, to begin with we are the first to offer global air and ground connectivity combining 5G and Iridium Certus in an AID / WQAR package that is essentially a plug-in replacement for 2G/3G/4G legacy systems.
Another is the AFIRS Edge features Amazon Web Services (AWS) IoT technology including AWS IoT Greengrass which enables FLYHT and airlines to extend key AWS services securely and seamlessly onto aircraft.
This enables another industry first which is how our avionics unit and its applications are managed in service. Line mechanics are normally required to touch every single aircraft to make changes or load new applications to traditional systems. In modern Industrial IoT outside aviation this has already changed with deployment of software configuration changes, new algorithms and security updates being performed Over-The-Air (OTA). The AFIRS Edge includes this kind of capability enabling deployment of OCI compliant containerized applications to the aircraft and even Machine learning inference on-wing. Together with our integrated system health and security monitoring we are making it easier for airlines to interact with and use our avionics.
The AFIRS Edge also serves as a data port for the Actionable Intelligence services such as fuel management, aircraft health monitoring and real-time engine data reporting. Explain how this will benefit operators.
The airline industry is still unwinding itself from the decades-old paradigm where all aircraft operational (QAR) data collected from the aircraft is considered “safety data” and is often owned and controlled by airline safety departments. While this is changing, legacy data flows from the aircraft to the ground make it difficult for airlines to free up the data for application outside of flight safety for maintenance or flight operations or general business intelligence. With airline flight safety departments having the keys to decoding the data, and the amount of data generated by aircraft and engines expanding, how to manage the data to derive value from it outside of flight safety is a real problem.
We are helping airlines better harness their data in two ways. First the AFIRS Edge harvests more data in-flight and post-flight and at a lower cost than has been possible before. Application of AI and machine learning for improved planning and Predictive Maintenance technologies off the aircraft is data hungry and success has been limited to date, and with the AFIRS Edge we aim to change that with expanded data harvesting.
The second way we help is through our JetBridge ground platform which serves as a data lake for the airline and as the data stack for our applications such as FuelSense, FleetWatch and ClearPort which provide Actionable Intelligence in support of fuel and environmental initiatives, real-time operations alerting and turn process management respectively. Our JetBridge AFIRS Gateway application gives airlines total data control and enables decoding and distribution of flight data flowing from the aircraft. The airlines can use their data as they see fit and derive value from any service providers they chose.
FLYHT recently retained Satichi Consulting Inc. for corporate development and capital markets communications services. Why? What will they do for the company?
As a public company, we work hard on making sure our investors are informed of the progress we are making. We are a different company than we were pre-COVID and we need to make sure that the investment community knows what is new, how we have evolved, how we have taken the investments in technology made over the last many years and made them relevant to the industry as it stands today, and how it will look with evolving changes occurring globally in OT data handling and security, cellular networks and access to information. Satichi will help us make sure the right people get to hear the facts about the exciting future FLYHT has.
The company recently joined IATA’s Aviation Cyber Security Strategic Partnerships program. Why is this important? What cybersecurity concerns should operators be most concerned with?
Our strategic partnership with IATA provides us the opportunity to closely collaborate with key aviation cybersecurity leaders and experts from around the world. Not just in protecting aircraft, passengers, and crew against cyber threats, but by contributing to the development of industry standards and regulatory initiatives.
One of the key concerns we’ve heard from operators related to the increasing digitization of the industry – particularly the continuing evolution of the ‘connected aircraft’ – and how to effectively mitigate the cybersecurity risk that comes with this, both from an efficiency, cost, and overall efficacy perspective. Airlines want to see aviation cybersecurity standards and regulations that are risk-based, not generalized application of controls that don’t mitigate any identified threat. They’re also looking to implement cybersecurity controls that both integrate and account for the differences between Information Technology (IT) systems and Operational Technology (OT) systems, the former being more applicable to protecting the airlines’ corporate networks and reservations systems, the latter being more applicable to aircraft avionics and industrial IoT devices. Finally, operators are concerned about mitigating cascading vulnerabilities that can result from the connectedness and complexity of modern aircraft technology, where the vulnerability in one device or system may lead to the exploitation of vulnerabilities in critical interconnected systems. We believe developing and implementing standardized cybersecurity certification processes is critical to helping operators in mitigating these vulnerabilities.
FLYHT recently added two industry veterans to its senior leadership, Scott Chambers and Murray Skelton. What do these leaders bring to the table?
In short – they bring a lot! I personally have a long history with both Scott and Murray. Together they have over 55 years of relevant experience and I’ve worked with them both previously bringing to market new and innovative aircraft data solutions. Both Scott and Murray are well known in the industry and they bring passion, vision, enthusiasm, and an understanding of both the airline business and FLYHT’s technology space. One reason I joined the company was the culture and values here, and I know that’s one of the reasons Murray and Scott have joined too. They fit in perfectly at FLYHT and I couldn’t be more thrilled they’ve joined the leadership team here.
Can you give our readers a taste of something new that you all may be working on for the future?
There are a couple of things I would like to share where we expect fresh demand for in the future where we are well placed to serve the industry.
The first relates to advances in black box flight data recorder data (FDR) harvesting. Over a decade ago, FLYHT first demonstrated what might be considered getting “a camel though the eye of a needle” by using our AFIRS technology to transmit black box data in real time in-flight via a legacy Iridium narrowband link. We subsequently participated in the Boeing Eco-demonstrator in 2018 with an end-to-end solution performing black box data streaming and real-time visualization of that data on the ground. Now, ICAO’s Global Aeronautical Distress Safety System (GADSS) initiative is driving a need for timely recovery of flight data (TRFD) but while this is focused on future new build aircraft for accident investigation purposes, I believe that expanding real-time data transmission has immense value yet to be realized. With Iridium Certus the AFIRS Edge supports real-time transmission in-flight, whether it is for real-time black box data transmission or for real-time aircraft health monitoring.
With the AFIRS Edge the airline can also automate FDR downloads after landing. FDR data is troublesome to download by hand, but the data has great value in cases where the aircraft has experienced extreme stresses such as during turbulence or a hard landing. The AFIRS Edge FDR download capability makes it possible for Line Maintenance to avoid lengthy inspections and flight cancellations by examining decoded FDR data which includes details about the aircraft stresses that can be compared against OEM published limits
The second exciting product area relates to improving weather forecasting not only for flight operations but also for the world at large. Aircraft Based Observations (ABO) and Aeronautical Meteorological Data Relay (AMDAR) technology for weather and turbulence data reporting in place at many airlines continues to rely on legacy ACMS and ACARS technology which means it is expensive to implement and operate. With ABO/AMDAR what we are talking about here is essentially using the aircraft as a flying weather station or Radiosonde weather balloon and turbulence sensor. With the combination of AFIRS Edge ACMS function and Iridium Certus connectivity and our Water Vapor Sensing System (FLYHT-WVSS-II) technology, which FLYHT recently acquired, we will soon be delivering a technological overhaul for legacy ABO/AMDAR solutions to provide more data, more efficiently enabling additional benefits beyond the systems in service today. Water vapor data has been a missing component from most AMDAR reporting, and the expectation is that this data will enable up to 15% improvement in short term Numerical Weather Prediction (NWP) models. This water vapor data will also provide further environmental benefits as it is the key to enabling contrail avoidance for airlines and the consequential environmental benefits.