Cabin connectivity has become something passengers expect in business and commercial aviation. Business and VIP passengers demand video conferencing, email, web browsing and live content just as they would in the home or office – and with the latest Ka-band and 4G systems, at last they’re enjoying something that comes close.
Yet facilitating business and keeping us entertained are but two connectivity-enabled functions. Perhaps more significant are the enhancements broadband connectivity has delivered into the cockpit. Flight planning, maintenance schedules, live operational updates and complex safety data are being sent to cockpits in flight, in near real time, for display on cockpit screens, iPads and other devices.
Pilots are now better informed about the weather than ever before. The latest weather products are delivering the strategic picture and turbulence reports directly into cockpits, complementing weather radar data or providing comprehensive weather pictures to aircraft without radar.
Honeywell Technical Sales Manager Jeff Hester notes that its IntuVue weather radar is available on the Falcon 8X and Gulfstream G650, but explains that the company’s Weather Information System (WIS), “…has been available to business jet subscribers for a number of years”. Now updated as WINN (Weather InformatioN Network), it’s available to business jet operators and airlines alike. The system collects crowd-sourced weather data and delivers it into subscribers’ cockpits, typically for display on an electronic flight bag (EFB).
Now, thanks to modern connectivity standards, Honeywell is working towards downlinking IntuVue data from equipped aircraft and merging it into a crowd-sourced product, creating a system far more capable than WINN alone. “The composite weather obtained from crowd sourcing IntuVue radar data will be uplinked to provide near real-time, worldwide radar images to WINN subscribers. Customers connected to WINN via satcom will have global coverage,” Hester says.
“Today, WINN is not intended to replace on board weather radar, but to complement it. The on board radar is still the best way to generate to-the-second, high-resolution weather data describing what’s in front of the aircraft, with individual cell resolution for tactical decisions. WINN is more useful for routing around weather systems and long-range strategic planning. For example, one of the weather layers provided shows predicted areas of clear air turbulence and commercial crews may decide to do a meal service earlier or later based on this, or may decide they should route around it. Having the weather along the entire flight plan allows for more optimal routing decisions because it shows extended systems that may go well beyond the 320nm radar range.”
Clear air turbulence has caused many a cup of coffee to spill, but in extreme cases poses a real threat to passenger and crew safety, and Honeywell’s WINN is not the only game in town for its prediction. Last June, Gogo and IBM’s The Weather Company announced the insertion of the latter’s Turbulence Auto PIREP (pilot report) System (TAPS) turbulence detection algorithm into Gogo’s aircraft-based communications servers.
Lisa Peterson, Vice President of Marketing and Digital Strategy for Gogo Business Aviation explains: “The algorithm runs on the aircraft. The report is generated on the LRU and shared via Gogo’s server on the ground. The ground server and Gogo’s business systems gateway then route it to The Weather Company.
“Rollout began in late 2016 and currently there are more than 670 aircraft flying with the application. Although we’re just in the initial phases of the rollout, the application is gathering data and feeding it through the algorithm as planned.”
Gogo chose its Business Aviation unit as launch platform, given the broader range of altitudes its customers use compared to commercial airlines. The moderate size of Gogo’s air-to-ground (ATG) antenna also means that smaller aircraft, possibly flying at much lower altitudes than an airliner or large-cabin bizjet, also feed data into the system – “As long as they have Gogo hardware and software, they’re contributing,” Peterson confirms.
A spokesperson from The Weather Company adds: “Business aviation fleets have unique characteristics in terms of routes, airports and altitudes that benefit all our customers. This is a great example of the Internet of Things in action, where we’re collecting massive amounts of data very quickly and then using that insight to provide guidance to all flights that will be travelling through impacted air space.”
Intuitively the product seems an offering only for Gogo customers, but that’s not so: “It benefits the aviation community as a whole. Basically, users can be active or passive. If they have a Gogo system they’re actively contributing to the crowd sourcing of the data – it’s done automatically. If they don’t have a Gogo system, it’s still possible for an aircraft to use the app and passively consume/use the information,” Peterson confirms.
The application currently runs only on Gogo’s North America ATG network, but the algorithm continues its work even when the aircraft flies out of ATG range. “Reports are cached and transmitted to the ground once the ATG link becomes available again,” Peterson says.
Aside from its work with Gogo, The Weather Company offers a range of connectivity-enabled products founded on many years in the weather forecasting business. Its WSI Fusion, Forecast Services, Total Turbulence and Pilotbrief offerings all use weather data gathered via the company’s Internet of Things (IoT). This collects information from thousands of global weather stations – individual reporters, military and civilian airfields, satellites and platforms at sea. The whole is merged into a coherent picture by The Weather Company’s experienced aviation meteorologists and delivered into the cockpit or operations centre.
The Weather Company’s apps enable pilots to take strategic decisions based on current or predicted weather, hundreds and even thousands of miles down route. If snow is going to close the destination airport, for example, they’ll know hours in advance and begin planning around the problem. And they’ll know about storm cells even beyond the range of their weather radar and be able to better predict turbulence.
And if one of The Weather Company’s more comprehensive apps – like WSI Fusion – is in use, then weather and operational data sit side by side; even more beneficial, thanks to high-speed connectivity, the weather data displayed in the cockpit is identical to that on the screens of the operations people back at base, further enabling rapid, quality decision making.
Weather data has become a valuable addition to several connectivity products, including those from satellite communications specialists AirSatOne and SD. AirSatOne’s Flight Deck Connect datalink solution offers transcribed weather information for pilots under its air traffic services component and METARS, PIREPS and winds aloft under its flight deck component. The company specialises in supplying connectivity via Iridium and Inmarsat services, although president Jo Kremsreiter says: “Technically the customer does not need to subscribe to one of our packages to receive our weather data, but most systems have other capabilities the customer wants to use.
“If the customer is using a weather app that provides a live feed on a tablet, they need access to the internet, which is typically through satcom. Iridium does not have a big enough pipe [it has insufficient bandwidth] to handle this, so the aircraft needs to be equipped with Inmarsat SwiftBroadband or ViaSat satcom systems. We provide web filtering and can block high-content media, but as a default we whitelist all the aviation weather and flight planning services so they pass through and don’t get caught in the filters.
“With SwiftBroadband and ViaSat, flight crews have access, via a tablet, to flight planning and weather services – and flightplan.com has free flight planning plus weather information. What’s nice about this is that the flying community is able to use its satcom internet for weather instead of the proprietary SITA and ARINC network that has historically provided the feed to the avionics. As everyone knows, it takes years to integrate new technologies into the flight deck, whereas commercially available tablets are on top of the latest technology.”
SD includes weather in its FlightDeck Freedom cockpit datalink service, while its GeoServices product provides weather alerts. Scott Hamilton, Chief Strategy Officer, Satcom Direct (SD) says: “Text weather data is available to all FlightDeck Freedom customers, while graphical weather is available to those with cockpit displays capable of displaying it. We source our weather data from Schneider Electric, with the exception of graphical weather for Epic-equipped aircraft, which is sourced from Honeywell.
“The Route Alert component of GeoServices includes alerts based on weather data and containing specifics of the weather-related phenomenon that generated the alert. However, GeoServices alone does not provide a complete weather picture. Route Alerts are sent directly to the flight deck, but authorised users on the ground can see all data sent to or from the flight deck, including the Route Alerts. GeoServices could be considered a complement to weather radar, in that Route Alerts consider weather data that is not available to radar systems, including forecast turbulence and icing.”
SD’s service is compatible with the majority of datalink avionics, but does not deliver weather information into the cabin for passenger consumption. “That’s for our mobile app,” Hamilton says. Called SD Cabin, it includes a moving map capability for display on passenger iPads. It shows the position and status of the aircraft, destination weather and weather along the route of flight.”
SiriusXM has been providing weather to business jets for many years, and SD recently took advantage of that heritage, establishing an authorised reseller agreement to distribute SiriusXM weather data. Hamilton remarks: “SD’s the only reseller authorised to distribute the data to aviation users. It includes US and Canadian weather radar; cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning; TAFs and METARs; extended forecasts; weather observations; graphical winds and temperatures aloft; echo tops; day one convective outlook; six levels of graphical turbulence; icing; and more. The specific content available to each aircraft is dependent upon the display capabilities of the installed avionics.”
Like so much in aviation weather and its cockpit utility, SD’s offerings combine – SiriusXM provides comprehensive weather data, providing a complete picture to the flight crew, while GeoServices uses weather data to provide specific alerts – to create an increased level of pilot situational awareness, enabling strategic decision making, more efficient routing and, most importantly, safer operations.