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The Airline Of The Future Will Be Powered By Data

Tomas Kellner
August 31, 2016

The Industrial Internet is changing the way the world does business — and that includes at 35,000 feet.

That fact was clearly on display at this year’s Farnborough International Airshow, which took place in early July in England. Airline carriers around the world have started connecting their planes to the Industrial Internet to capture and analyze the data they produce, and use the insights to improve on-time departures and arrivals and the bottom line.

One technology at the core of this transformation is Predix, GE's operating system for the Industrial Internet. We sat down with Jim Daily, chief digital officer for GE Aviation, to talk about the digital revolution and what it means for the airline industry. Here is the edited version of our conversation.

20160712-124041Above: GE Aviation set up a collaboration center inside its pavilion at the Farnborough airshow where customers can explore how software will make planes fly more efficiently. Top: " You can't continue to operate aircraft and the airline industry the same way we did 20 or 30 years ago," says GE Aviation digital chief Jim Daily. Image credit: Adam Senatori for GE Reports

GE Reports: Let's start with the obvious question. The airline industry is booming, and more people are getting on planes than ever before. Why do we need to connect jets to the internet?

Jim Daily: You can't continue to operate aircraft and the airline industry the same way we did 20 or 30 years ago. The obvious way to make a leap forward is to use the megabytes of data flying around an airplane at any given time. It's just a matter of harvesting it and using it in a way that makes the overall industry more efficient. We can use software to gain insights that we couldn't get before.

GER: How?

JD: By interpreting the data to identify anomalies on the plane before they become issues that cause flights to be delayed or canceled. That's one element. But we can also use the data to operate the aircraft in the most efficient manner possible and help pilots to select the fastest and most fuel-efficient route to its destination.

GER: Can you give me a concrete example?

JD: Let’s take a look at jet engines. Historically, we optimized jet engines based on assumed distributions, how other engines of the same kind performed over time. But with all the data that we're now able to collect we can create a digital representation of a single engine that's not based on historical averages for the entire fleet. We call it the digital twin. The twin tells you the exact state, the exact operational characteristics of that individual engine. That’s revolutionary.

20160712-124017GE placed a GEnx jet engine outside its digital collaboration center. The company is using data and software to make engines work better. Image credit: Adam Senatori for GE Reports

GER: That’s sort of like personalized medicine.

JD: It’s effectively the same thing. If we can know the behavior and the characteristics of a given engine, we can anticipate what's going to happen with it. Now we can predict problems, be proactive about them and provide the preventive cure before they become delays. This is something we've never been able to do before.

GER: Do you find something surprising in the data, answers to questions you didn’t know how to ask?

JD: Yes, absolutely. Some of the signals we picked up were twice or three times removed from the failure mode. Using the digital twin I had mentioned earlier, we've been able to find these issues in some cases 10 days prior to the point where they would actually have a physical impact on the aircraft. That's something, honestly, that exceeded our expectations.

GER: Is this the sort of outcome you are looking for?

JD: Indeed. If we didn’t catch it so early, the repair would have been much more invasive. The software just makes it easier for everyone, the airline as well as GE. It simplifies everything. Once again, the main goal of everything in aviation is keep the planes in the air, keep them flying and get them from Point A to Point B on time. If the planes aren't flying, they aren't making money.

GER: Do you need to get the data off the plane to analyze it?

JD: We have a limited capability to get data in flight. It’s fundamentally very expensive. We're working on compression routines and algorithms that will allow us to get more data in flight during relatively restricted access times. We are also working with our customers to make sure that we get all of the recorded data at the end of a flight. You can do that manually, but we are also working with plane makers on ways that collect and then transmit all of that data wirelessly once the aircraft lands.

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GER: Can you run analysis on the data while the plane is in flight, rather than uploading it into the cloud for analysis?

JD: Yes, you can. We call it Predix edge computing. But we're always working to strike the balance between what can we do locally on the aircraft versus what is more effective and more efficient to do off the aircraft. There's a tremendous amount of scrutiny by the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] of any software that's on an airplane. We harden and protect it against cybersecurity threats. We protect it against unintended operation. The bottom line is that Predix edge computing gives us a tool and capability that really does leapfrog what we historically had in terms of onboard maintenance systems.

GER: It takes me back to your personalized medicine example. The FAA is sort of like the Federal Drug Administration for planes.

JD: Absolutely, you're right. There's no such thing as resetting your computer in flight. You can't allow it to happen. The software must have a very high standard, both in terms of operating it on board the aircraft and controlling its critical systems on the aircraft, as well as protecting it from the potential of cyber threats.

GER: What happens to the data after you download it on the ground?

JD: It will all go inside the Predix cloud. We’ve worked closely with GE Digital to make sure that the environment is structured so that one customer’s data is protected from other customers. There's a tremendous amount of sensitivity, as you can imagine. We run the analytics on the data, but ultimately it's the airline’s data.

GER: What is the airline industry going to look like in five years?

JD: You are going to see that this digital shift is not a fad. We’ve proven that we can drive significant outcomes. Software is just going to continue to grow exponentially as we move forward. In five years we will get to the point where humans no longer need to walk up to a plane to collect data. Downloads are going to be automatic and they’re going to be wireless. I think we will also continue to get closer and closer to real-time computations through Predix and optimize aircraft as they are performing in flight. Right now there are still too many manual steps. Five years from now, I expect all of that to be effectively autonomous.

GER: How do you tell airlines about everything Predix can do?

JD: We’ve started opening customer collaboration centers around the world where airlines can take the software for a spin. We have one in Dubai and Paris and are opening more in Shanghai, Austin and Southeast Asia. We even brought a scaled-down version with us to Farnborough. Customers can work with data and visualize it in real time. I think having that type of collaboration environment is really going to show them what we can do. This is the first time we brought our digital systems