Predicting the Future: Aviation-related Technologies That Will be Obsolete (or Dramatically Changed) Before 2020

As I thought about how to write an article on technology obsolescence, and the possible tangents that it could take, I decided to focus on products that relate to computer-based or communications-based technologies. Otherwise, this would be a long article. In the interests of keeping this to a readable length, and making it sufficiently interesting, I have chosen to highlight 10 possible sets of products/mechanisms that will either not exist in their present form, or face dramatic change by the year 2020.

1. Unsecured communications of any type will cease to exist. Today we have unsecured Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) messages which are published onto the Internet, as well as other unencrypted data moving to and from aircraft at various times. We have unsecured ports on various avionics. In other words, we provide those with nefarious goals with a menu of choices on how to access an aircraft. But, we have many efforts underway to better secure wireless local area networks (LANs). The forthcoming 802.11ac and 802.11ad standards both use a higher form of encryption (referred to as Wi-Fi Protected Access version 2 or WPA2), as well as to design better cyber security measures into software-capable devices. With the implementation of Ethernet-based networks (AFDX bus) being designed into newer aircraft, the need to secure end points (avionics, devices and support equipment with interfaces to aircraft systems) is paramount. Aircraft maintenance personnel will need to learn about information technology (IT) and cyber security in order to service such aircraft. Reading ‘Microsoft Windows xxxxx for Dummies’ will not be sufficient. While we cannot possibly do justice to such a wide topic in one paragraph, let me sum this up in one phrase: every set of communication will be somehow encrypted and/or authenticated to validate its originator.

2. On-board software (contained within systems and devices) will be less unique. Today, most every OEM is responsible for developing, certifying and supporting the software which controls that manufacturer’s system(s). The aircraft OEM or system integrator typically does not dictate how this software is designed, other than the requirements, interfaces and safety/regulatory needs, and the adherence to industry standards. So, we have thousands of software-based systems installed on aircraft globally, each of which is utterly unique. In one way, this makes cybersecurity from an aircraft perspective a bit easier, since a hacker would have a more difficult time identifying cyber weaknesses. This will undoubtedly change. With a maturation of real-time operating systems over the years, as well as a push by commercial operating systems on portable devices (e.g. Apple’s IOS, Google’s Android, Microsoft’s forthcoming Windows 8, etc.) to address information and device security, expect that OEMs and integrators will either ‘encourage’ or simply force suppliers to design future systems around commercially-available software kernels. Such an approach will allow the aircraft OEMs and regulators to more easily perform in-depth cybersecurity testing of an entire aircraft since the interface to each system will have common protocols, which is not easily possible today. Of course, hackers will be aware of this, so the cyber arms race will continue. 

3. Digital identities. With the expansion of the use of higher-bandwidth networks within and to an aircraft, and the greater use to software to control aircraft devices (versus simple function electronics), you can expect that anyone who interfaces with an aircraft in any way will have to authenticate themselves with a personal digital identity. Some of the aircraft OEMs are already mandating their use regarding the support of new-generation aircraft. Expect all aircraft OEMs to mandate this by 2020. Software and data loading, eForms signing, and verification checks are some of the functions which will need to substantiate the unique and authenticated identity of support personnel. The ‘digital fingerprint’ you will have will be not only grant you access to aircraft systems, but also to log your activity. Big Brother will be sitting on the airplane.

4. Electronic flight bags (EFBs). These are relatively new electronic information management devices that helps flight crews perform flight management tasks. They have only been around since the early 1990s but have seen quite an evolution already. The latest change is how general-purpose, low-cost devices such as the Apple iPad have affected this product area, and how tablet computers in general (expect future versions of Windows and Android to combat Apple) will drive a further evolution of capabilities features and integration with not only an aircraft, but a maintenance ecosystem and air traffic management systems. We have seen how basic laptops became ruggedized and dedicated EFB devices, and how this has come full circle back to basic computers (tablets) which are more user friendly and support multiple uses. The consumer-led market will continue to drive further changes in how such devices are highly-interconnected to the outside world, moving data faster and automatically with other data sources, and a further evolution in the user interface driven by competition. With experimental devices such as the Google’s Wearable Display glasses, Google showed how the glasses could be used in much the way a smartphone is — for corresponding with others, listening to audio, and searching information. (This builds upon some of the earlier military efforts to have support personnel use helmet-mounted visual displays of manuals). Expect that EFBs and related systems will evolve to better integrate themselves with flight crews and their needs, aircraft and external systems/databases/software seamlessly, and utilize more commercial technologies.

5.In-flight entertainment (IFE) systems. Today’s IFE systems have evolved to have capabilities of a late-1990s home with slow broadband access and a Tivo-like selection of some prerecorded movies and shows. Expect this to change dramatically. Expect significant changes in the evolution of consumer electronics and software driving enterprise-level systems on the ground. Passengers will demand better user experiences while stuck on aircraft (especially when they are on the tarmac during some of those infamous five-hour delays awaiting for the weather to clear). Gaming technology should invade the cabin sometime soon, with passengers being offered more options to pass the time. With the ever-increasing SatCom or air-to-ground data links, we should experience a continued evolution in how aircraft can utilize wider bandwidth access to service flight critical and passenger (entertainment) critical services (and by critical here I mean when that two-year-old kid in the row in front of you who will not stop crying unless he sees his favorite cartoon NOW). One can easily foresee either gaming companies encroaching into IFE, or, some interesting joint ventures doing so. (This was tried somewhat in the past decade, but communications technology had not evolved to support the bandwidth as of yet.) There is new revenue to be made here for anyone who can solve this.

6. Paper documents will cease to be depended upon. If you have read my previous columns (and hopefully someone has), you have heard my drumbeat on eForms replacing paper forms. This movement has begun. Expect that once acceptance spreads, we will be saving lots of trees. There have been many studies on how the paperless office environment never quite happened, despite the plethora of PDFs, email and inexpensive data storage. However, the reasons for the use of paper have been primarily generational, and now that people in their twenties (who grew up on computers and consumer electronics) are moving into positions of influence, this will change. People “of a certain age” are used to handling paper, and are not comfortable with electronic data, and these people are starting to retire already. With e-Enabled aircraft and systems taking over for legacy aircraft in a large way by 2020, expect more and more paper to be retired along with the legacy planes and people.

7. Stand-alone software applications. No more software that doesn’t play well with other software or that only works with four walls. No more software that doesn’t share data in common formats with other software applications or databases. In other words, cloud computing-based services will drive demand for network-based managed services that will provide critical monitoring and management of application and service performance across LANs and wide-area networks (WANs) and Internet protocol (IP). While this is less important inside an aircraft (since interfaces were dictated by OEMs or an integrator’s design requirements initially), it is important for any process that handles aircraft communications, or aircraft support systems on the ground. Customers will expect more flexibility from their suppliers and trading partners, and having applications that support industry standard data formats which interoperate with others will be expected. Cloud computing is moving many applications to a shared services model, and all of this will accelerate aviation software applications to further adopt collaborative functionality well before 2020.

8. No more data silos. This relates to item seven, but this is more of an internal (within a company, department or campus) environment. With newer aircraft generating five times or more data as compared to legacy aircraft, and the expansion of supply chain planning and data, many organizations are drowning in data. Often pieces of disparate data have minimal value on their own, but once organizations identify means by which to better manage, sort and analyze this mountain of data into usable, truncated and pliable information, better management will result. This has been happening since the 1990s, and ERP systems help drive many companies to better understand their operators by shining a light into dark corners which were never studied before. In the coming years, with software applications slowly moving toward more commonality in data formats and processes, expect that many organizations will be better able to bring together previously-disparate processes into one mechanism. This mechanism will allow any savvy employee (who is allowed access to data) to understand how issues in one area can have a macro effect better. Why is this worth mentioning here? With many aviation operations operating across various locations, the difficulty in handling siloed data will disappear, and the challenge of being able to understand the ramifications of small issues will rise. It will become less important to ‘own’ a particular set of data or personnel or a department, and more important to understand how to bring together information to make a quicker and better decision when needed.

9. Regulatory authorities will be challenged like never before. This is not a new issue, but we can expect increased market pressure on regulatory agencies due to technological advances. These governmental organizations will need to change not only how they create guidance and policies, but also how they keep up with the ever-increasing pace of change in the industry. The complexity of new avionics, aircraft systems and devices, as well as how NextGen and its dependence upon GPS and IP connectivity will force a change in their internal processes, but most probably in how these agencies are managed. New types of staff will be needed, with more IT-savvy backgrounds, and more communications know how.

10. Less wires, more wireless. In the past decade or so, we have been moving from hydraulic systems being slowly replaced by fly-by-wire solutions, and from wiring being condensed to reduce weight and support costs. In the past few years we have seen the use of wireless systems within the cabin (lighting systems, passenger communications, cabin management systems) slowly emerge, eliminating many other wires. With the looming release of IEEE 802.11ac/5G, Wi-Fi will have a faster, more reliable and more secure standard to use. This standard has been driven by the massive growth of content consumption coupled with the proliferation of wireless devices, which has generated a necessity for faster and more reliable ways to access content across devices anytime, anywhere, more reliably and more securely. With devices such as the iPad and various types of cabin systems adopting consumer electronics, expect advances based upon this new wireless standard to drive innovation in aviation. By 2020, this standard will undoubtedly be surpassed several times over, with each new release driving increased capabilities. This will allow aircraft OEMs to innovate more readily (hey, just cherry-pick appropriate ideas from Apple, Samsung and others if you lack an imagination) to better the flying experience for your end customers. The point to be aware of here is that the reason more aircraft systems did not make use of wireless was due to reliability, security and bandwidth. These issues are being addressed by the electronics industry, and will drive massive changes to aircraft (more so in the cabin and noncritical systems).

I am certain that each person who reads this article will have differing ideas and opinions on a top 10 list of this nature. Each will undoubtedly be valid. Such lists are created to be conversation pieces, and will hopefully drive new ideas into our industry. With that, I ask that any of you who has an idea that should have been included here send an email to the magazine. If enough responses are provided, we will publish the results of this in a forthcoming issue.

This is your chance to stand up and be heard.

John Pawlicki is CEO and principal of OPM Research. He also works with Virtual Security International (VSI), where he consults to the DOT’s Volpe Center, handling various technology and cyber security projects. He managed and deployed various products over the years, including the launch of CertiPath (with world’s first commercial PKI bridge). Pawlicki has also been part of industry efforts at the ATA and other related groups, and was involved in the effort to define and allow the use of electronic FAA 8130-3 forms. He recently completed his writing of the ‘Aerospace Marketplaces Report’ which analyzed third-party sites that support the trading of aircraft parts. For more information, visit OPMResearch.com.

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