Once designed to eliminate 40 pounds carried in a pilot’s flight bag, Electronic Flight Bags (EFBs) have, in 10 years, morphed into essential tools improving efficiency and safety and shrinking costs and the time to get new tools to pilots.
But equally important, advances in EFB technology are changing how manufacturers think about technology on the flight deck.
“EFBs have been a significant disruption, enabling new capabilities for flight operations efficiency, productivity and safety,” Tyson Weihs, Foreflight cofounder and CEO, told Aerospace Tech Review. “This has been a revolution, allowing pilots to get a substantial amount of functionality on a relatively low-cost device they may not otherwise have had.”
This is a vast change from EFB beginnings when they were integrated into flight decks as “ships libraries,” storing operations and maintenance manuals to charts and maps, according to Collins Aerospace.
“As the applications for the electronic library grew, so did the complexity and cost of the integrated EFB,” Gary Anderson, Collins senior engineering technician, explained. “Tablet devices became more capable and the ability to go paperless, with all its advantages, became more cost-effective and easier for airlines to manage.”
As EFBs migrated to GA and business aviation aircraft they have afforded unprecedented advancements.
“The EFB is no longer just about digitizing documents, it’s about creating a digital copilot to support the pilot during different phases of flight and in high workload situations,” Honeywell Connected Enterprise Product Manager Sarah Weinhardt told Aerospace Tech Review. “We are seeing a trend in EFBs focusing on AI providing more predictive/contextual support based on phase of flight and outside conditions. Taking this leap is big, with some regulatory hurdles, but it is definitely where the EFB market is going.”
It is also about speed, said Weihs. “We’ve taken the minutes to locate and understand information and reduced it dramatically increasing safety, allowing pilots to focus on flying rather than flipping through books. Now every pilot can access enroute weather. This increased situational awareness speeds decision making and that improves safety. Apps now deliver information on frequency, airport maps, NOTAMS, and even FBO information.”
Astronautics Corporation Director of Connected Aircraft Solutions Ed Callahan noted EFBs are moving into flight plan optimization. “This empowers pilots to make faster, better decisions based on weather and aircraft performance,” he said. “It also enables pilots to work more effectively with ATC because they don’t have to rely on it for situational awareness.”
Room for Failure
“The EFB gives aviation technology companies like Honeywell ways to iterate fast, work with crews, and provide new technology fast,” said Weinhardt. “But it also provides the opportunity to fail fast. Not every new technology works or is a good idea. Being able to test in non-certified software allows the technology to be perfected before it goes into an aircraft or before investing millions of dollars.”
Craig Burfeind, director software Engineering at Garmin, indicated EFBs also provide features once only available to large operators. “Wireless features include streaming engine data from select avionics such as the TXi flight displays and the Garmin Pilot,” he said. “Pilots can view engine data in real-time providing more visibility to overall engine performance within the app, or can download engine data for post-flight analysis, potentially saving on costly maintenance repairs.”
Garmin Pilot leverages system data in which pilots view the most often filed routes between airport pairs, reducing complex reroutes or delays in-flight.
“Apps are developed very fast,” said Weinhardt, “which can mean really cool technology gets introduced in the market all the time. But it also means clutter and confusion for pilots to know what to use. Our customers ask for more and more features they see in other apps in a single EFB app.”
Anderson agrees. “We have to be careful with information overload,” he said. “We are listening to our customers and ensuring that we provide relevant applications that have a strong value proposition, including operational, technical, commercial and of course safety parameters. We are currently investing in Flight Profile Optimization (FPO) and Aircraft Health Monitoring (AHM) apps. At the same time, the value of aggregated data being shared through a data exchange is a key element of our current roadmap.”
Still, said Collins Aerospace ARINCDirect Mobile Apps Product Manager Benjamin Lynn, growing functionality is key which is why it launched the increasingly popular Plotting Chart.
“It allows flights to operate in oceanic areas without old paper plotting charts and is the first of its kind in the industry,” he said. “Plotting Chart reduces pilot workload. Its Course Validation Check module specifically simplifies the task of detecting gross navigation errors.”
App consolidation is the new frontier. “Customers want one application to fulfill as much as is reasonably possible and practical to meet their needs,” Weihs explained. “They are also seeking flexibility and more automation. What we are developing is the delivery of information that is anticipatory of things that affect the flight such as airport changes, disruption management or if you are flying into a congested airport which requires more fuel.”
OEMs Rethink Tech
“The EFB has also changed how aircraft manufacturers are looking at technology and how to use much shorter cycle times to advance the industry,” said Weinhardt. “Historically, anything in aviation took five to 10 years before a pilot used it, but with the rapid change in technology over the past decade, we are seeing a paradigm shift with OEMs and avionics providers trying to adapt how certified technology is done and released to the market.”
Manufacturers, she added, are looking at technology once required in embedded avionics, realizing it can be made available in EFBs for a fraction of the price.
But, she added, “EFBs are not to make it cheaper but about making flight safer and reducing the pilot’s workload so they can focus on their core job…flying the mission safely. Some capabilities, while able to be put on an EFB, really are better suited for the forward display such as Synthetic Vision (SV). SV on EFBs is not now approved for use in IFR conditions for commercial operations. This capability is incredible and can make a difficult approach in the heavy cloud coverage fairly easy, allowing the crew to virtually see the terrain and airport environment around them. But this doesn’t belong on an EFB and almost every commercial pilot would agree.”
EFBs will never replace certified instruments required for aircraft navigation, said Weihs. “But it could change how much users spend and on what,” he said. “Rather EFBs augment the avionics and connect to the panel for updating navigation information wirelessly to transfer data to and from tablet. That complements the significant workflow improvement in planning and preparing for flight.”
The increasing tablet-to-aircraft connectivity brings its own dangers, however, according to Astronautics’ Callahan, whose company enables secure communication in both aircraft and outside-the-aircraft arenas. Astronautics is working with global regulators to establish requirements for securing aircraft communications and strategies for mitigating threats.
“In order to continue developing innovative EFB apps, you need enhanced connectivity and that means a higher degree of security,” he said. “I think the continued innovation in the EFB space will be limited unless security plays a bigger and bigger role. It is one thing to use the cabin WiFi but another to connect the tablet to the aircraft. Our server enables secure connectivity and works on the assumption all portable devices are already compromised when we do a security analysis of the connectivity on board.”
Airlines Lead the Way
Wienhardt has seen a recent uptick in airline R&D. “They have programs testing different new weather and efficiency apps, as well as actually developing their own technologies internally,” she explained. “This is another paradigm shift in the industry where the airlines are on the leading edge of technology use in the cockpit and the business aviation is taking notice.
“The adoption of new technology is much faster at the general and business aviation space than at airlines owing to both costs and crew training. In a business aviation operator with three aircraft, a change if procedure means training is fairly easy and cheap. But, if an airline changes procedures or adds a new weather app, it requires training for every single crew member on that fleet before it can become standard.”
A perfect example of airline R&D efforts is Delta’s turbulence app designed to address the $100 million turbulence costs airlines annually, according to NASA’s Weather Accident Prevention Project.
Leveraging its Gogo WiFi network instead of ACARS datalink, the Delta Flight Weather Viewer uses real-time information anticipating and avoiding turbulence by aggregating National Weather Service data with analysis by Delta meteorologists and aircraft in the air. Delta hopes to reduce its carbon footprint by helping pilots avoid altitude and speed changes.
Delta touted its app on its Delta News Hub, explaining it was developed in partnership with Basic Commerce and Industries (BCI) and allows pilots to plug in their flight plan and view where turbulence is and how it’s being encountered on a 3-D, color-coded map. Delta even customizes the data by aircraft type to account for how turbulence affects aircraft differently.
“The system uses special algorithms, developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), from existing avionics sensors, to combine vertical accelerometer data with atmospheric data, which includes pitch, roll and wind speed to generate turbulence reports,” the airline explained. “These reports are fed back into forecast models, also developed by NCAR, and made available to the app in real time. Pilots can set threat index alerts, which trigger audible and visual notifications signaling when an area of turbulence lies ahead, when the seat belt sign should be turned on and when the cabin needs to be secured.”
Predicting the Future
EFBs of the future will streamline functions into a single app and provide predictive data for unprecedented safety, flexibility and efficiency. They will also likely offload technology from panel to tablet to a degree. As tablet computing power rises so too does the functionality of EFBs.