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Tech we wish we had

Riffing on the future of aviation

Sometimes it can be fun to dream. Fun to ask, “What if?” So, we did.
Illustration by Janelle Barone
Illustration by Janelle Barone

We posed a simple question to top people in a few leading aviation companies and asked—regulations, market impacts, and investment aside—how can technology improve aviation and what should be commonplace that we don’t currently have? The answers were interesting, insightful, and surprisingly consistent.

Connectivity

Our lives nearly depend on connectivity. Work, communication, social interactions, home management, and virtually everything in our world rely on sharing information with other people and other devices. Except in the aircraft. With limited exceptions our aircraft remain black holes of connectivity. We have radios and receive GPS signals, but until you get into large business jets and airlines, other communication and information sharing is sparse at best.

Maybe because of marketing to business jet owners, the first place most of us go when we think of internet in the airplane is the ability to watch Netflix or make cheap and reliable phone calls. But these are like the Candy Crush of applications—fun, but frivolous to the point of masking the real benefits of the technology.

“Once you have that layer of capability you can build things you could never imagine,” said John Zimmerman, the head of Sporty’s Pilot Shop’s catalog division. He gives the example of Uber. When the inventors of smartphones put small and cheap GPS chips inside, no one was thinking of ride-sharing services. But the tech laid the groundwork for innovative products that use the capability.

ForeFlight Co-founder Tyson Weihs is on the same frequency. “The first thing I want in every airplane is broadband,” he said. “I want the plane connected to the same tech that’s in our phones and laptops.”

Both Zimmerman and Weihs turned immediately to air traffic control, a constant pain point in their travels to urban airports and an area that hasn’t changed appreciably in decades. Weihs imagines a datacom system with enough redundancy and bandwidth that the airplane and ATC computers can automatically communicate and verify those communications. He describes today’s efforts to modernize ATC as layers of technology built on old technology.

“It’s slow, it’s messy, and adding applications to that is really hard.” But a system built on datacom could enable voiceless air traffic control that would be faster, more efficient, and reduce mistakes. With communication tools in the cockpit we already have, a clearance could be issued and verified automatically, the pilot would push one button to accept it, and ForeFlight, the GPS, or other connected device would load the route automatically and the autopilot would capture it—all without communication and only one button push.

“The way we do it with party line radio is so old-fashioned,” Zimmerman said. He made the point that we’re already doing a version of datacom with datalink over the North Atlantic. And pre-departure clearances are available at some larger airports, but these are preliminary, and still require a fair amount of back and forth with ATC. With better protocols and a little more investment datacom could become automatic.

Weihs agreed. “Getting a departure clearance from your phone is so obvious we’re going to look back and wonder what took so long,” he said. “Jets have taken off and flown into a mountain because they couldn’t get their clearance. It’s not a technical problem. It’s a change-management issue.”

Engines

Without a doubt, our piston engines remain the most antiquated parts of our aircraft. With the exception of diesel adaptations and Rotax, most of what we fly behind is woefully outdated. We still burn leaded fuel. We are using tractor magnetos long after tractors have stopped using them. And despite rigorous maintenance and inspections, GA engines fail at an alarming rate.

Working with our existing engines, one way to improve reliability is with real-time monitoring. Airlines do it today, streaming engine data down while in flight for instant analysis. “If we’re going to fly with World War II engines we’ve got to up our game a bit better than regular oil changes and cutting the filter,” Zimmerman said.

In general aviation, maintenance management company Savvy Aviation is trying to find patterns that will lead to predicting various types of engine failures. Connectivity would mean being able to stream that data down in real time, where a system could alert you to an imminent failure, or maybe just warn you that you need to go to the shop when you land. Weihs said a machine learning model could even be installed on the airplane that would warn the pilot of an impending problem.

Our engines are also difficult to operate and require a lot of specialized knowledge. Oliver Leber, Continental Aerospace Technology’s OEM applications and marketing director, thinks the technology is already available today to make the experience more like driving a car. “We have certain expectations of driving a car,” he said. “We want to get in, start it, and go.” Leber points to modern diesel aircraft engines, where the pre-departure checklist is a button. The button goes through a full diagnostic check, including cycling the propeller.

Leber contemplated the ownership experience. “You practically have to have a project management certification to manage all the various things,” he said. Making airplane ownership as easy as car ownership, possibly through better diagnostic tools that lead to more streamlined regulations, seems to be a universal need.

Leber points to his company’s CD line of diesel engines and how diagnostics and maintenance management are completely different, requiring additional software and a bit of hardware to properly service. A service provider can plug into the engine-management system like a dealer can with a modern car. And with additional data Leber said the industry could make the diagnostic and predictive tools that much more adaptable.

Weihs and Zimmerman said one solution might be to scale turbines down to the piston world. “I would love to snap my fingers and get a small turbine engine that powers a Cirrus or Bonanza,” Zimmerman said. It would make flying safer and take care of the leaded avgas issue.

Weihs pointed to other big-airplane technology that could easily be scaled to our airplanes. Autothrottles, automatic fuel and performance calculations, head-up displays, and more could make flying more fun, safer, and potentially bring the airline safety record to our slice of aviation. “We have all the tech we need to run the calculations,” he said.

Some of this may seem like science fiction, but 40 years ago none of us could have imagined how quickly we’d adopt GPS and large moving maps with high-resolution terrain, in-cockpit weather, and other safety-enhancing features. In 40 more years autoland, FADEC, fly by wire, and datalink might be standard on every new aircraft. It’s fun to dream.

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Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly is senior content producer for AOPA Media.

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