iPads & Aviation: The State of the Union

Paul Saunders works for Conduce, a company based in the UK who specialises in iPad development and mobile strategy consultancy for the aviation industry. Paul has spent most of the past six months working with airlines, maintenance providers and software vendors on helping define their strategies as well as designing and developing bespoke iOS software. Paul regularly writes and presents at aviation technology conferences about the use of iPads in aviation. You can read Paul’s company blog at ://blog.conduce.net.
iPad and Aviation
At the launch of the iPhone 4S back in October Apple CEO Tim Cook showcased the use of iPads in the cockpit, but many people outside of the industry are probably wondering what they are being used for. It took a little while for the aviation industry to sit up and take notice of the iPad as an enterprise tool. It was probably around the launch of the iPad2 that the device became a hot topic and every airline and maintenance provider wanted to use them in their organisations. The iPad became the answer to so many aerospace technology problems, but we soon found out that most organisations didn’t actually know what the question was in the first place. Add to this the fact that aviation is one of the most highly regulated and safety conscious industries in the world and you are left with a number of “unique” challenges to adopt iPads in this enterprise environment.

There was a time earlier this year when it was big news for an airline to announce they were going to equip their staff with iPads. Now it barely gets a mention in technology and aviation news blogs. So many airlines are starting to use them. It is almost more newsworthy now when an airline rejects them and chooses Android or PCs instead. There are dozens of use cases now within aviation, with bespoke apps becoming available for data acquisition, productivity, business intelligence and even in-flight entertainment. Perhaps the most significant area of usage is what is called the Electronic Flight Bag or eFB. Most people will recognise the image of the pilot heading towards his flight towing a large black flight bag. This bag doesn’t just contain a pilot’s lunch, it also contains their procedures manuals, their technical publications, their flight and navigation charts. For many years airlines have sought to replace these bulky manuals with technology for obvious usability and efficiency reasons. Critically, even a weight saving of just a few ounces can scale up across a fleet of aircraft to represent a saving of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year on fuel costs. United Airlines who are in the process of deploying some 11000 iPads to their pilots, estimate that the weight saving alone that iPads will bring to their fleet equates to about 45 seconds of fuel per flight, which spread across the whole fleet amounts to a whopping 326,000 gallons of fuel and 16 million sheets of paper per year. The American aviation regulator the FAA has been pretty cavalier in their attitude towards the iPad as an approved eFB device. As you might imagine the iPad sailed through the various decompression and radiation resilience tests thanks mainly to the solid state technology, but the European regulator have been slightly more conservative in their approach paying close scrutiny to specific use cases and their supporting procedures. EASA who is the pan-European overseer of local regulators have not yet given a blanket approval to the iPad as an eFB having concerns about supposed limitations with iOS enterprise deployments citing fears that pilots might be distracted by some of the consumer friendly properties of the iPad. Converting some of aviation’s legacy applications to iOS is not a five minute job either with flight optimisation algorithms dating back to the 70s with millions of lines of ancient FORTRAN code. However this has not stopped individual European operators from getting their own specific iPad enhanced procedures approved by their national regulators.

As a result of the rise of iPad deployments in aviation, end users are looking to their software vendors to optimise or convert their other business application for iPad. We are seeing a rise in the demand for consumerized enterprise apps as a result, with every form and document on board the aircraft slowly being replaced by an app. This trend is spreading to the ground with engineers, despatchers and other ground crew having similar apps being made available to them. It used to be a convoluted process to keep ground crew up to date with the latest information from a flight with reams of paper forms being hand written, faxed and manually uploaded to central systems. Now we are starting to see connected apps which transfer data the moment the aircraft reaches the gates and establishes communications.

The proof of concepts and pilot studies of these first generation applications in aviation are now starting to be rolled out and approved in live working environments. Very soon the sight of a pilot, a flight attendant or a flight despatcher updating an app on an iPad instead of signing a paper form will be a reality that will be experienced by most travellers. And as for the pilot’s big black flight bag? Well, he’ll still need something for his sandwiches.
Image courtesy of United Airlines iPad Press Release.

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