Aviation is arguably the most advanced of all data-driven industries, collecting terabytes of data from the thousands of aircraft circling the globe and carefully organising and constantly analysing it in the pursuit of safety and efficiency.
Big data reveals insights to drive the Industrial Internet, but small data has impressive powers of persuasion, too.
For the first time, Qantas is enabling its pilots to tap into their individualised data with the launch of FlightPulse, the result of an intense collaboration with GE and streams of feedback from those target users in the cockpit.
When Qantas first officer Dave Summergreene took on the role of flight crew fuel manager a few years ago, he says he was “blown away by the wealth of data” the airline already had. “But as a pilot … we had no way of knowing how to improve our own operational flying efficiency, because we didn’t have the data … we needed to get this data into the hands of pilots.”
While airline analysts have long had access to data, including fuel use, in aggregate form, and studied it to recommend changes to procedures, policies and training, “very rarely have individual pilots had access to data about themselves,” explains Chris Solan, digital solutions product manager for GE Aviation.
When Qantas and GE celebrated the opening of the GE Aviation Digital Collaboration Centre in Austin, Texas, last October, GE already had a prototype for a fuel-efficiency app, “like a concept car, saying this is the art of the possible”, says Solan.
The idea was to give pilots an app on their Electronic Flight Bag (known as an EFB– the contents of that heavy black pilot briefcase of yore now sits on an iPad) that would allow them to access detailed data from their own flights.
Each pilot’s data would be private to them alone, a secure digital tool to help them improve their operational efficiency and reduce carbon emissions.
GE had shown the prototype to a few aviation customers and, says Solan, “Everybody said that’s awesome and that they were interested, but when the Qantas fuel team saw it, they really wanted to make this happen—they were the driving force.”
Qantas’s Dave Summergreene was an early champion. “You cannot effect change unless you empower change,” he says, “and to empower change we had to share the data.”
Murray Adams, group manager for fuel efficiency at Qantas, adds, “Dave was relentlessly coming to me, going, look at all this great data … how do we get it to the crew?” That challenge had been the missing link.
“We’ve always had so much [fuel] data at our disposal,” says Matt Simmons the airline’s group fuel principal analyst, “but it’s always been a struggle to connect that with the people who really need it.”
From GE’s point of view, adds Solan, “We’ve thought about the potential for a long time; now our capabilities have evolved to the point that we can connect data off an aircraft to an individual pilot.”
The art of the possible was dangling, it just needed to be grasped—and developed into an app.
Things moved quickly once Qantas signed on to become GE’s collaboration partner to develop FlightPulse in late 2016. After a November workshop at the Qantas campus in Mascot, Sydney, a beta version was rolled out to a group of 20 eager app-test pilots in January 2017.
Solan, who’s been both a commercial pilot and a military pilot, understands intimately the mindset of his cockpit colleagues. “Analysts will come up with suggestions for new procedures to help improve operational efficiency but often it’s hard to understand if they have had any effect. But if you can put real data in the hands of individual pilots, then you’re saying, ‘Hey look, I did this, this is the outcome, and it has an impact.’ ”
Work on the project occurred—appropriately for an airline—around the world, with teams in Austin, San Ramon and Portland in the USA, Shanghai in China and Sydney working on FlightPulse. It is also the first large-scale app to use mobile services from Predix, GE’s operating system platform for the Industrial Internet.
“Pilots do everything on their iPads, their EFBs,” says Luke Bowman, GE’s customer engagement leader on the project. “We knew that’s where it had to be to get buy-in, otherwise it wouldn’t be in their normal workflow.”
Armed with the data, the potential to improve operational efficiency is immense.
Though this iteration of FlightPulse focuses on operational efficiency, the app was designed to display any type of analytics. Bowman says he sees potential in using data for applications to inform other areas of airline operations, too.
Simple operational efficiencies reduce CO2 impact. For every kilo of fuel saved, airlines save more than three kilos of carbon emissions. On an A380 aircraft, pilots using reduced flap landing save an average of 142kg of fuel, idle reverse thrust saves 45kg and a procedure known as engine out, taxi in saves 10kg per minute.
“The app now allows our pilots to look at their own data and analyse things and ask their own questions,” says analyst Simmons.
Summergreene sees the biggest benefit of the app is the ability for pilots to “look at their own operation and see where they can make changes.”
After the first round of testing, FlightPulse was released to more pilots for further trials, and after more feedback workshops and development tweaks, it is now available to more than 1,500 Qantas Airlines and Freighter pilots, with the other Qantas Group flying businesses to come online in the coming months.
The app “enables our conversation about fuel efficiency to continue outside the flight deck” says Qantas A380 captain Peter Probert.
It “wouldn’t have been possible without the amount of effort and cooperation we got from Qantas and their pilots,” adds Solan of the development glide path.