Aerial Intelligence: This Airbus Makes Pilots Smarter

July 13, 2014

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At first glance, Air Asia’s fleet of Airbus A320 planes look like any other passenger aircraft. But look under the hood and you will find an array of sensors and proprietary technology developed by GE that make their pilots smarter.

That’s because the systems gather performance, weather, flight path and other data and feed it over the Industrial Internet to the cloud, so that it can be crunched by software and analytical engines built and operated by GE Aviation’s Flight Efficiency Services unit. The system looks for hidden patterns and saving opportunities, and allows the airline to cut its annual fuel bill by more than 1 percent. Doesn’t seem like much? Consider that it’s on average about 550 pounds of jet fuel - the equivalent of 11 packed suitcases - per hour of flight.

Pilots and airline managers see the results on a dashboard and use it to make better informed decisions about how much fuel they need and which path they are going to take. There are dozens of other airlines around the world already using the system, including Air New Zealand, China Airlines, WestJet, and EVA Air.

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But the smarts go beyond fuel savings. GE is also working with Air Asia and the Department of Civil Aviation (the regional equivalent of the FAA) to roll out a GPS-based flight path program at 15 Malaysian airports, and another eight in Thailand and Indonesia. The goal is to improve their efficiency and possibly increase capacity.

While GPS does not sound revolutionary in other contexts, keep in mind that most aircraft still use radio beacons to determine their position. The new system, called Required Navigation Performance (RNP), was first designed by Alaska Airlines pilot Steve Fulton after going through many sweat-soaked night landings at the mountain-rimmed airport in Juneau, AK. It was further developed by GE Aviation.

“The inspiration was both frustration and concern,” Fulton said. “As pilots in southeast Alaska, we were regularly operating in difficult weather conditions with limited navigation aids. We understood that there was very little margin for error. We had training, experience, and the best in that generation of ground-based navigation equipment and the associated aircraft instrumentation. But still, even with all of that, there were times when a pilot could be put in a very tight spot.”

The system has since helped open up airports in the Himalayas, mountainous southern New Zealand, hilly downtown Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere around the world.

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