GE Aviation, Avionica Close To Gaining Approval For FMS-EFB Connection

GE is testing its connected EFB on a Miami Air Boeing 737-800.
Sean Broderick Dallas

GE Aviation and partner Avionica are close to gaining regulatory approval for a connection between GE’s flight management system (FMS) and electronic flight bags (EFB) that is designed to increase the interconnectivity between the companies’ core avionics units and portable pilot aids.

Intended to reduce pilot workload and optimize operations, GE’s Connected FMS extends the flexibility of EFBs such as Apple iPads to more tightly controlled onboard systems. Airlines and third-party developers have created myriad EFB apps—from weather to fuel-optimization tools—to help pilots analyze possible route improvements using real-time data. Without a two-way link to the onboard systems that guide an aircraft, however, any work conducted on an EFB is isolated, and route changes plotted on a tablet must be hand-keyed into the FMS. Conversely, changes put into the FMS, either manually by pilots or automatically from an airline operations center (AOC) or air traffic control via the aircraft communications addressing and reporting system (ACARS), cannot be shared with the EFB. Connecting the two is intended to clear these hurdles.
Intended to reduce pilot workload and optimize operations, GE’s Connected FMS will extends the flexibility of EFBs
Pilots use them to avoid weather and crunch numbers
“It’s enabling all the functionality that we have on the tablets—from charts to maps—to communicate and keep up to date with what’s in the FMS,” says Gary Thelen, GE Aviation’s FMS product manager. “Map applications get out of date almost right away preflight, because as soon as you have a flight-plan change, your EFB application is out of date. From a pilot-workload standpoint, they don’t want to take the time and energy to go back and make those updates into the EFB. With this link, those updates automatically sync with the FMS, and the flight plan in your tablet is always up to date.”
The system’s configuration varies depending on the aircraft platform. An FMS software upgrade is required. The Boeing 737NG architecture, which is being developed first, adds a dedicated Arinc 429 connection from the FMS to the aircraft interface device (AID). The AID is linked to the communications management unit, the interface between ACARS and the FMS. EFBs can connect to the AID via a wired or wireless link—Avionica’s AviONS AID serves as a wireless access point on the ground—and link with the FMS via a secure pairing process. The process is similar to a Bluetooth connection, with the EFB generating a numeric code that must be punched into the FMS.
Once paired, flight plans and other performance data are automatically pushed to the linked EFB, where pilots can use it with specific apps. Sending routes from the EFB to the aircraft mirrors receiving a route-modification message via ACARS, with the exception of a prompt indicating the portable device as the source. The pilot uses the FMS to accept all changes, just as via ACARS. “It operates exactly like an AOC upload would from a pilot’s perspective,” Thelen says.
Many airlines receive initial flight plans via ACARS. For those that do not, linking an EFB to the FMS means routes could be loaded into the tablet and delivered to the aircraft. The inflight environment offers even more opportunity.
The ability to manipulate routes using a graphic interface is available on some newer aircraft, including the Boeing 787. But for most pilots, such capability is only possible on an EFB.
“The power of the [connected FMS] is that the EFB is no longer just a [navigation] display,” explains Sean Reilly, Avionica’s vice president for business development. “I’m looking at a map in front of me. I’m heading right toward that thunderstorm. I have the ability to click on that [flight path] line, drag it around the storm and execute that back into the FMS.”
Developing a secure bridge between the iPad and FMS was a key part of making the system work. GE has created a software development kit for third-party EFB app developers, and the kit includes the necessary security protocols.
Plans call for the connected FMS to be flight-tested on a Miami Air International Boeing 737-800 in the next few months. Barring any unforeseen snags, it will gain FAA approval and enter service with the global charter specialist soon afterward. Then, GE and Avionica plan to “offer it to the broader market,” Thelen says. The market is broad: GE has been supplying FMS since 1984 and has them on more than 12,000 aircraft, including the most popular narrowbody families—the 737 and AirbusA320.
A pilot that flies 737NGs for a U.S. major sees the benefits of the connected FMS but questions its upside: “We already can load our route into the FMS before departure, via ACARS, and independently load the route into various applications on the EFB via the internet,” this pilot says. “The only useful feature would be to synchronize the routes on each platform once we were in the air, but that seems pretty limited.”
As EFBs grow more useful, GE sees them becoming integral to the industry’s push to drive operational improvements through real-time data.
“This is part of a natural progression going on in the industry,” Thelen says. EFB capability is rapidly expanding, due in part to third-party developers creating everything from weather apps to flight analytics tools. “But if you talk to airlines, they still have limited value because the embedded FMS is the only truth—what an aircraft needs to fly,” he says. “Creating a secure connection between the two opens the door to a lot more.”