Kelly Ortberg: Airplanes generate more data than large hospitals – and that's an opportunity

In April 1915, the world’s first ground-to-air voice transmission occurred when a British pilot heard his colleague say: “If you can hear me now, it will be the first time speech has ever been communicated to an airplane in flight.” Thus began aircraft connectivity. Fast forward a century and the industry has entered a new era – aviation’s information age.

The world and particularly the Middle East have made remarkable advances in air travel and the information it generates. For example, since its inception 55 years ago, Dubai International Airport has become the world’s busiest international airport. That progress has laid the foundation for today’s expanding network capabilities and robust data collection. It is critical to enabling the region to exploit the significant opportunities that lie ahead.

Key to these opportunities is conquering the avalanche of information descending on the aviation chain. Consider that just one airliner’s international round-trip flight creates up to a terabyte of data – equal to all the X-ray films in a large hospital today. This data, much of it unstructured, must be analysed properly to increase effici­ency, enhance passenger experiences, reap safety gains and improve the industry’s bottom line.

The region’s fast-growing airlines need the ability to unlock the full potential of this data and its substantial value. This will support their desire to demonstrate a significant competitive edge by providing a connected, comprehensive view of their entire operation. Over time, suppliers of smart communications, aviation electronics systems and networks will optimise this data and turn it into valuable and actionable information.

Reaping the benefits of all this data depends on linking an airline’s entire aviation network.

Much progress is being made, including:

Flight deck systems: these deliver pertinent information to pilots when they need it, enhancing efficiency and safety.

Cabin-based passenger engagement systems: 90 per cent of passengers board with at least one mobile device and they expect instant connectivity and entertainment. On-board wireless, advanced in-seat systems and powerful broadband connections are fostering integration with social media platforms and passenger processing data, increasing passenger engagement in the cabin and beyond.

Last year, it was reported that Emirates airline had experienced a 25 per cent increase in uptake of Wi-Fi services following service updates and that the carrier continues to invest more than US$20 million annually on installing and operating in-flight connectivity systems, which enable on-board Wi-Fi services.

Etihad also differentiated its offering through innovations in next-generation aircraft with in-flight products and services such as The Residence.

Airborne networks: air traffic will experience an anticipated seven-fold increase by 2050 – and in turn, so will data volumes. Harnessing this data can add considerable value.

Airport systems and operations: three in four global airports have started to, or expect to, invest in major IT upgrades over the next few years.

As all these separate systems become increasingly inte­grated, providing protection from security threats must be a top priority for our industry. Today, the industry and regulators are working together to ensure the security of these networks through special conditions as part of the aircraft certification process.

While balancing safety and security with progress is important, we should not lose sight of the rich opportunities that exist. Aerospace connectivity has inspired a variety of companies to pursue sophisticated systems to take advantage of this data. Expect more integrated information management solutions that will trigger the next phase in aviation’s information age, so we must all work together to keep moving forward.

Kelly Ortberg is the chairman and chief executive of Rockwell Collins. He will be part of a discussion panel on Tuesday at the Global Aerospace Summit in Abu Dhabi.

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