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Flying digital: Honeywell and Rolls Royce lead the way in the age of connected planes

Joseph Flaig

Getty Images
Getty Images

Nate Turner has been flying all his life.

When he was two, he rode along in his grandfather’s small plane, and at 10 he took his first flying lesson. On his 16th birthday, he completed his first solo flight – the first day he could legally do so. A year later he achieved his private pilot’s licence and after that it was only a matter of time and a college degree before he was flying ERJ-145 airliners for American Eagle.

“It has always been a passion of mine,” he says. “My career has been awesome.” Over the 21 years since his first lesson, Turner has seen huge changes to the planes he flies, especially since he started working for Honeywell Aerospace. The company is at the forefront of a connectivity revolution, and its new Connected Aircraft is midway through a world tour.

Planes are getting smarter by the day. In today’s cutting-edge aircraft, tiny sensors in the wings, engines and cockpit monitor every aspect of operation. The sensors ‘talk’ to each other and the plane communicates with other aircraft and centres on the ground, predicting the safest and most fuel-efficient course. ‘Intelligent’ engines tell maintenance engineers how worn their parts are and what needs replacing, and in the cabin passengers video chat with family members.

For Turner, the change is “incredible”. When he started flying, he would constantly consult huge manuals and rapidly outdated paper charts before and during flight. Now, he grabs his tablet and is presented with everything from up-to-date weather forecasts to approach charts for his destination. 

The benefits of hyper-connectivity are rapidly coming to airlines, with everyone from EasyJet to Emirates signing up for high-tech systems. In the decades to come, further advances enabled by connectivity could make today’s planes look like a Wright brothers experiment. But what is driving this huge leap forward, and what can we expect it to bring?

Versatile sensors

The topic was almost as hot as the 50ºC+ tarmac at the 52nd International Paris Air Show in June. Beneath the soaring aerobatics of the latest fighter jets and giant airliners, exhibitors and visitors discussed the advances in connectivity. 

An Airbus A380 on display at the Paris Air Show (Credit: Airbus/ P. Masclet/ master films)

And, for the biggest changes, one has to look at the very tiny: sensors. As the spread of the Internet of Things quickens at ground level, it is driving a surge in cheaper, smaller and lighter sensors. Manufacturers are using more of them, in more parts of their planes than ever before. New technologies are “connecting right across the aircraft as an independent system, but also connecting aircraft with each other and the ground,” says Simon Weeks, chief technology officer of the Aerospace Technology Institute. The latest silicon carbide microchips can handle higher temperatures than traditional silicon, able to withstand the intense heat around jet engines and ensure they stay within safe limits.

Manufacturers are also introducing sensors to monitor noise and wear on parts. One innovative solution proposed by BAE Systems could see thousands of micro-sensors the size of grains of rice installed across aircraft wings. The units would link together to create a ‘skin’ that would monitor airflow or stress on parts. 

While new sensors are increasing the richness and volume of data from planes, few companies are making the most of the information. Limited bandwidth for data transfers is a bottleneck for greater connectivity, but planned new satellite constellations should allow for the quicker flow of realtime information. Mobile connections using 4G are starting to link planes with each other and the ground, enabling much faster transfers, and 5G speeds will soon be possible. It’s not kilobytes of data any longer, but terabytes. “We talk about the sheer number of data points moving from the millions of points a day to literally billions of data points that we will be looking at in the very near term,” says Matt Burns, head of Rolls-Royce’s aircraft availability centre.

Greater computer processing power will be installed on new planes in the near future, allowing onboard analysis of the data using complex algorithms. Depending on file size, the information will either be transferred to manufacturers and operators during flight, or by a physical transfer on the ground. 

Honeywell is already demonstrating the advantages of high-speed data with its showcase Connected Aircraft, which is making its way around the world for a publicity tour. In the cockpit, Nate Turner says Honeywell’s in-flight internet-enabled apps are making flights safer, more comfortable and more efficient. “It’s incredibly useful – I was on a flight up to Idaho a few weeks ago, and I was able to use the weather information service app to see where the turbulence was,” he says. 

The Honeywell Connected Aircraft (Credit: Honeywell)
The Honeywell Connected Aircraft (Credit: Honeywell)

Looking on his tablet, he saw a patch of clear air turbulence at the same altitude, something which does not appear on radar but could cause discomfort for passengers and danger for the plane. “That allowed me to request a different altitude from air traffic control, to be able to get a smoother ride for my passengers,” he says – adding that he then ascended immediately to 36,000ft, skipping a bumpy journey.

A Honeywell system for collaborative radar scanning is also in use on planes such as the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737 Max. Aircraft using the RDR-4000 system share their radar scans with others, creating a 3D picture of clouds. The system “builds a much better picture,” says Turner, overcoming issues such as heavy cloud blocking radar returns. 

The huge amounts of data coming from sensors could also improve fuel consumption, which traditionally accounts for 40% of a plane’s running cost. Analysis can reveal which routes or speeds use the least fuel. 

This approach can make flight cheaper, says Anand Parameswaran, senior vice-president of aerospace and defence at engineering company Cyient. “People are always looking for a 2 or 3% reduction in fuel bills: we are now seeing 15 or 16%,” he says. “That changes the number of people who can afford to fly.” With the number of planes set to increase rapidly in coming years, a reduction in fuel use could also partially reduce some negative environmental effects. 

Then there is predictive maintenance. Sensors are beginning to constantly monitor parts and notify engineers of required replacements. Systems such as the Rolls-Royce IntelligentEngine use sensors to monitor data and communicate with other parts of the aircraft. The plane then contacts the airline and the Rolls-Royce aircraft availability centre, which already monitors 4,500 engines at all times. Software at the centre looks for 130 ‘pattern signatures’ from engines each time information is received, allowing engineers to schedule maintenance if any deviations appear. 

As well as greater efficiency and lower costs, better connectivity between planes and the ground could bring wider benefits. “Pilots should have more reliable planes, passengers should get there on time with less delays, and manufacturers and airlines working together will improve safety and reliability. The more you share data, the better it gets,” says Tim Robinson, editor in chief of Aerospace, the Royal Aeronautical Society’s magazine.

Disruptive technology

But there is more. Experts hardly dare comment on a possible timeframe for automated flight and artificial intelligence systems in the cockpit, but most seem to agree it will happen. Parameswaran claims that autonomous flight for passenger airliners could be as close as eight to 10 years away, but huge challenges to the technology are likely to linger for a significant time, and others predict a much longer wait. 

There are developments under way, though – going well beyond the multitude of companies recently joining the autonomous flying cars hype. NASA, for instance, is working on its Single-Pilot Operations concept which would have one seat in the cockpit for a captain and one seat on the ground, for an operator who, as needed, would be either dispatcher or first officer. In the dispatcher (or rather ‘super-dispatcher’) mode, the ground operator would monitor up to 12 planes when all flights are progressing smoothly. But in case of a problem on board – such as a pilot with a mental health issue locking himself in the cabin and flying his plane into a mountain, as Andreas Lubitz did in 2015, killing all on board – he or she would switch to being first officer of a specific flight.

NASA’s approach wouldn’t be a fully autonomous solution, and Robinson says the crucial next step for a self-flying plane would be teaching a computer “airmanship, and to deal with the unexpected”. Referring to US Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger, who landed an Airbus A320 on the Hudson River after a bird strike in 2009, he says: “You think about Sully, with the double engine strike. How could you program for things you can’t imagine?” An autonomous flight system would need to be self-learning, he says.

Autopilot systems currently handle long sections of flights but, even if automated software is developed, to also handle take-off and landing, passenger concerns may limit its roll-out. “I think it is quite a long time to go before we see large passenger aircraft that are fully autonomous,” says Simon Weeks. 

“At the moment the passengers might not feel happy if there is no pilot sitting up at the front, so an intermediate step might be single-pilot operation. But clearly there would have to be many types of safety systems around a single-pilot operation, to cater for the event where that pilot might not be functioning for some reason.”

With an estimated million people in the air at any one time, delays to disruptive technology such as autonomous planes are considered a necessary sacrifice to ensure the highest possible safety standards. But with cheaper, faster and smaller sensors, quicker data transfers and better artificial intelligence systems making planes more connected every day, big changes to other aspects of how we fly might come sooner than expected.

This piece appears in the July/ August print issue of Professional Engineering.

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