Future is looking brighter for electronic flight bags (EFBs)

Special report -- Electronic flight bag (EFB) designers are hopeful as demand for commercial avionics is starting to turn upward and airlines are becoming more receptive to EFB technology. Meanwhile the military is seen as a long-term growth opportunity for EFB devices, albeit those that are more secure and rugged.

Mar 18th, 2010

By John McHale

Designers of electronic flight bag (EFB) technology for commercial and business aviation have had a tough run during the world's recent economic woes, as airlines and other aircraft operators have cut back spending due to the recession.

Business aviation was especially hit hard as many companies cut back on their private aircraft to save money during the fiscal crisis. This of course trickles down to those who design cockpit avionics equipment such as electronic flight bags (EFBs).

For more on electronic flight bags (EFBs), see stories entitled Electronic flight bag avionics for military take on rugged, tactical form, and Kontron computing modules used in electronic flight bags.

Despite their economic woes, EFB designers continue to add capability to their devices. EFBs were basically created to eliminate paper in the cockpit but today offer more capabilities such as airport moving maps (AMMs), satellite weather updates, electronic aeronautical charts, and software compatibility with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen).

The improved capability is also making EFBs more attractive to operators as the commercial avionics market starts to turn around.

"We see encouraging signs with the commercial market," says Bill Ruhl, marketing manager for Astronautics Corporation of America in Milwaukee. "The airlines are getting more interested in EFBs because they are now avionics-quality, installed computers that support NextGen certified software applications rather than devices that just replace paper, Ruhl says."

"Things are stating to improve," says Ken Crowhurst, director of marketing at navAero Inc. in Chicago. "We see an uptick in the U.S. market and in Europe especially.

"We're very encouraged by Europe, which typically lags behind North America" in terms of technology adaptation, Crowhurst says. Many operators in Europe are embracing EFB technology because they see that it works and is cost-efficient, he adds. EFBs are also platform independent and will enable operators to retrofit their existing fleet with NextGen capability more economically, Crowhurst notes.

Airlines are getting over some of their initial reservations regarding EFBs "because they are finding that EFBs reduce pilot workload, simplify flight operations, and provide greater situational awareness," says Michael P. Toothman, director of IMS FlightDeck in Brea, Calif.

"We've right-sized our forecasts since 2009 and are starting to see a slow recovery," says Loring MacKenzie, senior marketing and sales manager at Esterline CMC Electronics in Montreal. "The market has not gone up exponentially," but there is greater interest among the airlines, especially in business aviation, which took a big hit in the last couple years, he adds.

Business aviation operators are starting to look at EFBs for avionics upgrades, MacKenzie notes. For business aviation applications, CMC offers the 10.4 inch PilotView, "which is in full-scale production and is being installed into a large number" of business jets such as the Bombardier Global Express, he continues. Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is the system integrator on that aircraft, MacKenzie adds.

"There is no silver bullet to justify the installation of EFBs," says Merritte DeBuhr, product line manager for integrated systems at Carlisle Interconnect Technologies in Franklin, Wis. It will be a different situation for each end-user based on a mix of financial and technological benefits, he adds.

Each airline that wants to use an EFB must take into consideration long-term costs, such as how long will their fleets be in service -15, 20 years or more in some cases, DeBuhr says. "Once they know that they can weigh the long-term costs and benefits."

They will then determine what is more effective in the long run -- the installation of an EFB or upgrading the fixed cockpit displays, which may not even be an option, he adds.

EFB class definitions

There are three classes of EFBs. Carlisle's DeBuhr broke them down as follows:

"Class 1 is portable, basic software functionality (typically Type A DO-178B certification), not for use below 10,000 feet or during taxi, is not attached to an aircraft mounting device, and must be stowed during taxi, takeoff, and landing, DeBuhr says.

"Class 2 is approved for operation in all phases of flight, is portable, must be removable by the pilot without tools, has more software functionality than a Class 1 (such as moving maps), real time satellite weather updates, etc.," he continues. "Class 2 is only approved for Type A and B software applications and Type C applications that [have a Technical Standards Order (TSO)], such as the AMMD (airport moving map display).

"Class 3 is installed equipment, which with operating system (OS) software functionality certified to DO-178B Type C applications, can be certified as part of the STC (Supplemental Type Certificate)," DeBuhr says "A DO-178 certified operating system is not required for a Class 3 installation if only Type A and B software applications are to be installed on the EFB system. In a Class 3 installation all the equipment is approved as part of the STC and therefore can [get a Parts Manufacturer Approval (PMA)], which allows an FAA 145 repair station to test, repair, and place an FAA serviceable tag on the equipment."

Class 3 certification adds a great deal of cost to an EFB, CMC's MacKenzie says.

EFB requirements

Another factor improving attitudes among EFB designers is a push among the entire avionics community to work together on EFB technology.

The upcoming ARINC EFB Users Group meetings this year will help develop a common understanding of EFB issues and opportunities, leading to more rapid adoption, says Rick Ellerbrock, strategist at EFB provider Jeppesen in Englewood, Colo. "EFBs are becoming an essential tool in the flight deck" -- improving situational awareness, which in turn improves pilot decision making and enabling the crew to connect in real-time with the rest of the world."

The first ARNIC Common EFB User Group meeting is April 21 and 22 in Atlanta, and is hosted by Delta Airlines, with Southwest and Lufthansa as the co-chairs, DeBuhr says. "The meeting will bring everyone together -- operators and manufacturers -- in an effort to help all obtain a better understanding of EFB standards, systems, benefits, options, costs, and other issues regarding EFB technology and implementation."

Right now "there can be different requirements from day to day," DeBuhr says. Every now and then a company may fall short of meeting the FAA's intended requirements, which causes the FAA to implement changes and add new requirements, he continues.

Once the FAA puts something on their watch lists it affects all EFB products and installations going forward, and has caused some manufacturers to go back and adjust their product lines, DeBuhr says.

Lithium ion battery problem

One area the FAA is concerned about is with the use of lithium ion batteries as the backup power supply for EFBs; the batteries pose a risk of overheating which could cause fires or explosions.

The FAA put in a roadblock with EFB STCs because of issues with Lithium Ion batteries and the impact of these batteries on certification, Crowhurst says. Since that time navAero has switch from lithium ion to nickel metal hydride batteries (NiMH) NiMH for its battery power, Crowhurst says.

"There are no FAA guidelines for using NiMH batteries," Toothman says. "Lithium batteries in the cockpit are coming under scrutiny by the FAA and we are using NiMH instead to enhance cockpit safety."

While hardware requirements and specifications are important, the future of EFBs will depend largely on software capability.

"In my opinion, the long-term trend with electronic flight bags will be a shift from hardware development to more robust software applications," Toothman says. In the next five years, the hardware platform will be considered a commodity, while software which expands the capability of the EFB (situational awareness, in-flight weather information, fuel management) will be in greater demand.

"EFB hardware continues to evolve, but software applications hold the greatest promise," Toothman notes

"The latest technological development for the Class 2 EFB sector is the ability to interface with aircraft systems to allow for the deployment of AMM applications with own-ship position shown," navAero's Crowhurst says. "This has been allowed to take place due to the foresight of the FAA and industry-leading data content providers like Jeppesen who has achieved a TSO for their AMM application that provides for the ability of a cost-effective Class 2 platform to host safety enhancing situational awareness software. Additional technology developments also include the ability of Class 2 (or Class 3) EFB systems to provide an access point to multiple forms of wireless communications pipelines for text and/or data transfer -- satellite communications for anytime connectivity or WiFi or cellular (3G) for on-the-ground connectivity."

Officials of ABS Jets out of Prague, Czech Republic, selected the navAero Class 2 EFB for their avionics upgrade plan, according to a navAero release. The EFB system received a European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) Supplementary Type Certificate for the Embraer E135BJ Legacy business jet.

"Applications like charting and airport moving map enhance our safety-of-flight operations," says Daniel Holda, Technical Director of ABS Jets. "In the future, the deployment of the wireless capability will create an extremely independent way for us to have on-the-ground connectivity that is separate and apart from the airport infrastructure. This connectivity will give our pilots a way to perform their briefings and pre-flight tasks from right from the cockpit. And it will also give our crews the additional capability of being able to implement last minute changes -- all without leaving the flight deck."

"The latest research elements are on taxi routing, automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) traffic and runway alerting," says Scott Powell, enterprise manager for cockpit solutions, aviation at Jeppesen. "While there are (and have been) research projects at Mitre, NASA-Ames Research Center, and Technische Universitat Darmstadt into the situational awareness improvements by leveraging these technologies -- it will be a while before this technology is deployed on a widespread basis due to the entire ADS-B system needing to be in place, and corresponding equipage in aircraft for the value to be realized."

The FAA's Capstone project is quantifying the situational improvement offered by surface moving map applications and ADS-B traffic/alerting.

EFBs can provide airport moving map displays, engine performance applications, weather reports, satellite weather presentation capability, ADS-B information, etc., Carlisle's DeBuhr says. "However, right now regarding ADS-B it is a one-way conversation with the airplanes talking to the ground systems. Once ADS-B In becomes available for display in the aircraft on the EFB the benefits of the EFB become significant."

EFB offerings

IMS is launching a new line of Class 2 EFBs -- the SkyTab 3201 and the SkyTab 4201 -- designed completely in house, Toothman says. "FedEx is the launch customer for the product," he adds. 

Its features include a sealed, passively-cooled CPU, Toothman says. "Potential Middle Eastern customers have been excited about the sealed nature of the EFB, due to the impact that dust can have on EFB service life, this is also a selling point for all airlines as it reduces to zero the number of moving parts in the device.

"Our Class 1 products, the SkyTab 1350 and the SkyTab 2350 are ruggedized, Windows XP-based EFB units," he continues. "Our Class 3 units are the same as our Class 2, but have more rigorous testing to meet FAA qualifications."

Jeppesen engineers designed their latest EFB software solution -- the FliteDeck Pro -- with the help of several operators, including Continental Airlines and Southwest Airlines, Jeppesen's Powell says. "We worked directly with the pilots to design a tool targeted at pilots. Having customers as our design partners helped generate common work flow requirements to create a second generation software platform for EFBs."

With the new software "we are seeing training time reduced, and also a significant reduction in the number of touches the crew needs to make" when using the Jeppesen applications, freeing up more time for other tasks, Ellerbrock says. "They also can push highlighted charts to each other in the cockpit," he adds.

FliteDeck Pro's operational features include:

-- an open framework, enabling easy integration of third-party software and data across multiple aircraft types and hardware platforms;
-- ability to share information between crew members to reduce crew workload;
-- chart revisions through wireless or portable memory stick technology;
-- ability to record air traffic control taxi instructions; and
-- integrated performance tools from Boeing, Airbus, and other airframe manufacturers.

Jeppesen chart applications that are integrated with FliteDeck Pro include AMM and terminal charts and a worldwide en-route map with weather overlays this spring, according to a Jeppesen data sheet. Both tools are managed with Jeppesen's Data Distribution Management (DDM) system.

Astronautics offers single processor and dual processor EFBs, Ruhl says. The single processor device can support the Windows or Linux operating system, he adds. Linux enables users to run certified NextGen applications, Ruhl notes.

The dual processor partitions the certified applications on one processor running Linux, while the other processor runs Windows, Ruhl says.

Both Astronautics EFBs have capability for cockpit display of traffic information for ground operations in accordance with AC 20-519, video surveillance and control, fault log, satellite weather, document reader, checklists, electronic charts, airport mapping, performance, digital map (Falcon View), and mission planning, according to the Astronautics data sheet. The dual processor device also offers a full suite of ACSS SafeRoute applications including ADS-B based merging and spacing, as well as growth to host certified Type C applications such as Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) and ADS-B for controlling En Route traffic.

CMC's PilotView Class 2 EFB, which flies on Dassault and Embraer aircraft, features pre-flight planning; access to up to date aircraft documentation, checklists and flight planning information; en-route, approach charts, moving map displays, enhanced vision system displays; and graphical real time weather information, according to the CMC data sheet. The PilotView has a display/processor unit and aircraft interface unit.

Electronic flight bag companies

Air Gator
Mt. Kisco, N.Y.
www.airgator.com

Aircraft Management Technologies
Dublin, Ireland
www.flightman.com

Arconics Aviation
Dublin, Ireland
www.arconicsaviation.com

ASG Corp.
Miami, Fla.
www.asginc.net

Astronautics
Milwaukee, Wis.
www.astronautics.com

Carlisle Interconnect Technologies
Franklin, Wis.
www.carlisleit.com

DAC International
Austin, Texas
www.dacint.com

Esterline CMC Electronics
Montreal, Quebec
www.cmcelectronics.ca

Evoke Systems
Norfolk, United Kingdom
www.evoke-systems.com

Exialt
Zurich, Switzerland
www.exalit.ch

General Dynamics Itronix
Sunrise, Fla.
www.gd-itronix.com

Global Air Works
City of Industry, Calif.
www.airworksinc.com

Goodrich Corp.
Burnsville, Minn.
www.goodrich.com

IMS FlightDeck
Brea, Calif.
www.imsflightdeck.com

Jeppesen
Englewood, Colo.
www.jeppesen.com

Kontron
San Diego
www.kontron.com

L-3 Communications
Sarasota, Fla.
www.l-3AR.com

navAero
Chicago, Ill.
www.navAero.com

NavTech
Waterloo, Ontario
www.navtech.aero

On-Board Data Systems
Mirabel, Quebec
www.obds.com

Sat-Way
Luxembourg
www.sat-way.com

Skyjob
Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom
http://skyjob.co.uk

Teledyne Controls
El Segundo, Calif.
www.teledyne-controls.com

Ultramain Systems
Albuquerque, N.M.
www.ultramain.com

Universal Avionics Systems Corp.
Tucson, Ariz.
www.uasc.com

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