Computing the costs of connectivity

Would you be comfortable flying in a pilotless passenger plane? It is a question to which most people, myself included, would immediately answer “no”.

However, many industry experts say that this prospect may one day become a reality, especially given the increased use and commercial applications of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones.

Would you be comfortable flying in a pilotless passenger plane? It is a question to which most people, myself included, would immediately answer “no”.

However, many industry experts say that this prospect may one day become a reality, especially given the increased use and commercial applications of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones.

But as connectivity on our planes become more sophisticated, the proliferation of data brings its own challenges.

Some industry insiders say that the idea that a plane could be hacked is no longer far-fetched.

Aviation automation

Next year, Singapore’s Changi Airport plans to roll out Asia’s first full self-service pre-flight experience using biometric and facial recognition technology.

Besides checking in for your flight via your phone or smart device, you will be able to print your own boarding pass, tag and drop your own luggage, and clear immigration, all without dealing with another human being until you get on the plane.

It is part of a broader trend within the aviation industry towards increased efficiency and cost savings through more automation.

But that’s not all. Once on the plane, you can also look forward to no longer being told to switch your mobile phone or laptop off before take off and landing.

For years, we’ve been told that these transmitting devices could somehow interfere with the plane’s systems.

But, David Brunier, vice president of the global communication services at Panasonic Avionics, says that extensive testing by the industry’s biggest companies has proved that’s not true.

Brand new aircraft such as the Airbus A350 XWB, for example, are now on to a fourth generation in-flight entertainment system which has a widescreen TV in high definition and “full connectivity” to the outside world via personal devices.

It’s marketing videos proudly show off a mobile phone and laptop symbol next to the fasten your seat belt sign.

Next generation

It’s well-known that we live in a wired world.

Until recently, though, there was one place where we couldn’t stay continuously plugged into our mobiles or laptops, and that was 30,000ft in the air.

Previously, business jets were the only ones that could really afford to have onboard wifi, simply because its multi-millionaire and billionaire owners could afford it.

But technological advances mean that is changing. Equipment such as routers and antennas have become smaller and cheaper and the savings can be passed onto the consumer.

Engineering firm, Honeywell is working with satellite company Inmarsat to develop the next generation onboard wifi service, which will allow consumers to stay connected at speeds similar to being at home or in a local cafe, without being exorbitantly expensive or plagued by bad or patchy connections, especially when travelling over water.

Brian Davis, Honeywell’s Asia vice president of air transport and regional aerospace, says that soon passengers will be able to stay connected to their Whatsapp group chats, send emails and even watch live television events such as the upcoming Olympics.

“If you can imagine flying across the ocean, not dropping the signal, having the ability to actually stream video, its a completely different… customer experience that’s never been touched before,” he says.

However, it also means even larger amounts of data is going to be produced, which will need to be encrypted and protected.

Software giant SAP works with nine of out ten airlines in the Asia Pacific.

It says a plane currently produces about 20 terabytes of data each hour and that the aviation business can take better advantage of the information provided.

Cybersecurity risks

After the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, conspiracy theories abounded.

One of them was that the Boeing 777 aircraft had been remotely hijacked and taken over. This claim was even repeated by Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in a blog post.

American security researcher Chris Roberts added fuel to the fire when he made headlines last year for allegedly hacking into a plane’s computer system from his seat and became the subject of an FBI investigation.

Industry experts and the plane manufacturers, however, have dismissed this. Nevertheless, will the aircraft of the future be more at risk of being accessed remotely from the outside?

There is a lot more wiring and computer systems installed on new planes, with the two main ones being the flight controls and avionics, or the internet and in flight entertainment systems.

In a sign of how complex aircrafts have become today, just compare their spare parts. An older Boeing 737 is made up of 40,000. An Airbus A380 aircraft has four million.

Growing market

Aviation is a fast-growing market, particularly in the Asia-Pacific, and while it promises billions of dollars in opportunities, challenges abound.

Rising wealth in the region, particularly in the emerging markets of China, India and Indonesia, is expected to drive strong demand for more air travel.

With more and more people are flying daily, there is heightened pressure to maintain and improve customer and safety standards.

Hundreds of regulations are already unveiled by aviation’s industry bodies each year.

But given aviation’s digital transformation, it looks like the industry’s biggest challenge may be how to remain a step ahead in an increasingly wired world.

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