Planes are Getting Smarter as Aviation IoT Takes Off, Says Boeing

Our interview with Boeing Senior Systems Engineer Robert Rencher reveals that aviation IoT has implications for digital factories and supply chains, but it's the operational environment where the biggest inroads will be made.

Jeremy Coward

May 16, 2017

5 Min Read
Image of wing of airplane in sky

The impact of the internet of things on transport has been frequently written on and is well publicized, but this coverage tends to stop short at connected cars and other automotive categories.

The role IoT will play in aviation remains a much foggier concept with far more technical details. Ahead of his talk on “The IoT Impact in Aviation” at Internet of Things World in Santa Clara this May, we spoke with Robert Rencher, associate technical fellow and senior system engineer at Boeing.

The Boeing Company has been a leading name in aviation from decades and remains the largest aerospace company in the world. Rencher's role revolves around emergent technology trends that will be beneficial in the aviation space, determining effective ways to utilize this technology.

In what areas of aviation is IoT currently being implemented, and how developed are these implementations?

“The best way to understand the use of IoT in the aviation industry is to consider the complexity of the services consumed and provided. There are three distinct domains: Digital Factory, Digital Supply Chain and the Operational Environment.

“An airport is as complex as a large city. An airline manages, under heavy regulatory oversight, the most complex machines. Early in the application of IoT technology, the tagging and tracing of things proved to be beneficial in reducing the cost of inventory and improving availability. Reducing unplanned system outages through the application of analytics, and improved data collection through IoT sensors and gateways, has improved the operational efficiencies of our factories and airline customers.

“We continue to see opportunities in operational efficiencies throughout the Aviation Ecosystem. A key to this is improving the trust in data utilization across the ecosystem. We anticipate that there will be many new opportunities as IoT technology matures.”

Which specific area of the IoT aviation market do you expect to be most lucrative in 2017, thanks to IoT?

“The potential impact of IoT on the operational environment in aviation is substantial in size and possibility, so that will most likely be the most lucrative area. While the factory and supply chain are doing a great job, in the operational environment you've got tens of thousands of aircrafts out there about to benefit from IoT technology and services.

“The main value proposition is the reduction of outages and unplanned maintenance. The IoT will give us a quicker, deeper understanding of the intimate details of the machines, and we'll be able to apply predictive analytics to anticipate when there's going to a problem, and either mitigating the problem or preventing it from happening through technological means.

“IoT will also enhance the efficiency of the airplanes themselves. Today, for the most part, the navigation systems are making sure the plane is at the right place, at the right time, at the right altitude – but think about extending that concept to the performance of the engines, taking in more weather information and so on.

“We'll end up with a much greater awareness about the machines and how they're operating. This extends to the airports – flight arrivals, flight departures, handling passengers – removing many of the unplanned disruptions out of the aviation industry.”

How long before IoT technology is commonplace across aviation?

“It's commonplace today – the rest is more a matter of maturation and rate of innovation. The commercial aviation industry is usually lagging behind consumer-side of the industry by a few years. An OEM's perspective differs from the airline's perspective, where they're looking at things more from a customer experience viewpoint. Airlines are usually a lot more aggressive in their pursuit of IoT technology because of this, and you can see the improvements in areas like baggage handling where they've improve substantially over the past few years.

“More crucially, we're seeing most participants in the aviation industry become more agreeable to adopting and utilizing the same standards, which is important to developing interoperability across our systems and the uptake of IoT in aviation.”

How will airplane manufacturing be changed by IoT over the next 12-24 months?

“All vehicles are made up of many parts coming from many different suppliers — airplanes especially. IoT can increase awareness of what's available from whom, and enhance the accuracy of when new parts are delivered (even taking obscure factions into account like weather and traffic), tackling what is a huge logistical challenge. IoT will also help with forecasting demand and rate of consumption, in terms of what the equipment manufacturers are supplying.

“The end result is a much better commercial aviation ecosystem. The right people will know when there's a need for a part, or when maintenance will need to occur, much further in advance. The generation, collection, dissemination and accuracy of this information is currently a huge challenge in our industry.”

Where are the biggest business opportunities going to be for IoT in Aviation in 2017?

“Informed passengers will be the biggest business opportunity. IoT brings transparency of service – individuals will have greater selection of services and be responsive to alternatives in opportunities and avoidance of disruption.”

What sets Boeing apart in terms of IoT development?

“The excellence of our service, living up to the statement of “If it's not Boeing, I'm not going”. We may not always be the first to market, but we're going to bring the best product to the market.

“We've had some products and services that incorporate IoT elements for quite a while. One is our Airplane Health Management product that was launched in the early 2000s, which has been matured as technology develops, allowing us to continually increase the margins of safety with our aircrafts. The IoT is going to help us develop that further.”

What’s your favourite fact or statistic regarding IoT in Aviation?

“The amount of data Boeing aircraft generate on a daily basis. The Boeing 787 generates one half terabyte of data for each flight. You can see online how many 787s are in flight. Using 200 as a number of active flights, that’s 100 terabytes of data for each of the flights. These aircraft fly two to three flights a day. That’s over a petabyte a week for those 787 aircraft. Considering how many airplanes are flying. That’s a tremendous amount of data…”

— Jeremy Coward, Community Manager, IoT World News

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