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Author's profile photo Christopher Koch

How In-Memory Computing Could Transform Airlines: First, the Cockpit

In-memory computing sometimes seems like one of those overeager parking valets who literally sprints to the lot to get your car.

Yeah, in-memory is fast. Yeah, it puts lots of data idling at the curb, just waiting to be churned. But what’s the big rush on the big data?

That question has led me on a hunt for stories of how in-memory computing can do more than make data analysis faster. I want to see business  transformation, okay?

The first story I have for you is in airlines.

Airlines Can’t Prepare for the Unexpected

It turns out that airlines are essentially flying blind when it comes to keeping their expensive planes in the air. Inefficient Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) operations cause frustrating flight delays and safety hazards–not to mention wasted fuel and pollution.

I’ve been working with freelance technology journalist Stephanie Overby to interview three of SAP’s airline industry experts: Wolfgang Ullwer, Sameer Deshpande, Phil Te Hau and Willem Gouws.

What they’ve told us is quite scary: Most airlines aren’t prepared to deal with the unexpected.

Big Data in Real Time Would Help

That’s because airlines use overnight batch processing to track MRO. That works for routine maintenance, but does little to address issues such as an unforeseen engine fault, or a tire that wears out prematurely. And it does nothing to help airlines predict when problems are likely to occur so that they can be fixed before anything bad happens.

The 40-Pound Bag of Problems

Bringing predictive analytics to aircraft maintenance won’t be easy, of course (I go into the challenges in more detail in this post on the SAP Forbes blog). But there are some glimmers of hope appearing. I’ll be writing about them in a series of posts on this topic.

The first reason for hope is in the cockpit. For years, crews have lugged around a 40-pound case of documentation known as the flight bag. The flight bags contain that arch enemy of data analysis: unstructured data in the form of a pilot’s handwritten logbook entries, navigational charts, equipment manuals, and weather and radar maps. It is a terrible jumble of paper (you don’t want to know how many minutes you’ve lost the gate due to a few missing briefing papers). When the first electronic flight bags (EFBs)–ruggedized laptops–were introduced, they cost thousands of dollars, offered limited functionality, and did little to lighten the load.

The iPad Takes Flight

Then along came the iPad. (I know, it’s getting a little tiresome hearing about how wonderful the iPad is all the time–but it’s true.) Now that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has granted American Airlines the first approval to use iPads in all phases of flight (sorry, passengers, you’ll still have to keep yours stowed during take off and landing) its pilots can use them full-time, putting away the leather bag and paper documentation for good. (Hard copies of the airworthiness certificate and aircraft registration are still required.)

The tablets bring much-needed simplicity to the cockpit. For example, one click-update management for manuals and charts and the potential to cross-check critical flight data increase both efficiency and safety.

The Critical Link to the Ground

Yet what’s always been missing from the flight bag–even the electronic ones–is a link to what’s happening on the ground. By connecting tablets to enterprise systems, the cockpit could become another always-on node on the airline’s information network, sending back reams of data for real-time analysis. An airline maintenance engineer could access the latest from the pilot’s logbook while he goes about the business of getting us from here to there, planning work orders for quicker turnaround of that plane. Prognostics performed on data exchanged between EFBs and enterprise systems could ultimately lead to fewer equipment failures and safer air travel.

Sounds like a good argument for in-memory to me. What do you think?

Thanks to our SAP subject matter experts for contributing their thinking to this piece. Here are links to their LinkedIn bios if you want to learn more about them: Wolfgang Ullwer, Sameer Deshpande, Phil Te Hau, and Willem Gouws.

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      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      Not trying to be critical but really?

      .....What they've told us is quite scary: Most airlines aren't prepared to deal with the unexpected......

      Ask a pilot if he is prepared for the unexpected. He trains many hours for the unexepcted.

      You are dead wrong about "critical link to ground":

      read on:

      Rolls Royce uses Engine Health Management (EHM) to track the health of thousands of engines operating worldwide, using onboard sensors and live satellite feeds.

      A corporate EHM team covers Civil, Defence, Marine and Energy which enables the Group to develop technologies and best practice across all business sectors. In the Civil market for example, the Trent family of engines is supported by a comprehensive Rolls-Royce EHM capability operated in conjunction with Optimized Systems and Solutions (OSyS), a Rolls-Royce company, and accessible as appropriate by the airlines involved.

      EHM is a pro-active technique for predicting when something might go wrong and averting a potential threat before it has a chance to develop into a real problem. It is especially useful in industries such as aerospace where the results of a technical failure could prove very costly. EHM covers the assessment of an engine’s state of health in real time or post-flight and how the data is used reflects the nature of the relevant service contracts. Essentially, EHM is about making more informed decisions regarding operating an engine fleet through acting on the best information available.

      The evolution of EHM and the revolution in its use has significantly reduced costs by preventing or delaying maintenance, as well as flagging potentially costly technical problems. New assets will incorporate EHM capability, and techniques will, where possible, be retrofitted to existing equipment. Broader engineering disciplines can benefit from the growing reservoir of supporting data. As operational profiles of technical performance are revealed in ever more detail – from individual components to whole engines – so engineers can develop more thorough and cost-effective maintenance schedules, and designers can feed higher reliability features into the engine products of the future.

      Read up on ACARS it has been around for years.

      Before you make critical comments about the airline industry make sure you have talked to the actual workers and employees of the airline industries.

      Granted there is always room for improvement in the airline industry....low hanging fruit like food, seating, etc etc.

      But the industry is allows moving forward with innovation at a respectable pace.

      There number on focus is safety PERIOD. Just ask Captain Sullenberger.

      Hey what about reporting on this initiative:

      Honeywell And Inmarsat To Modernize Global In-Flight Connectivity        

      • New Service to Deliver Fast, Reliable In-Flight Connectivity for iPads, Smartphones, Tablet Devices, and Laptops
      • Allows for Real-Time Social Media, Video Conferencing, and Multi-Media Presentation in-Flight, Similar to Being at Home or in the Office
      • Honeywell and GX Aviation Network to Establish Leadership Position in Rapidly Growing Airborne Connectivity Segment; Industry Forecasts Airline Passenger Traffic to Double Over the Next 20 Years
      • $2.8 Billion Estimated Value to Honeywell Over the Next Two Decades

      LONDON and PHOENIX, April 18, 2012 -- Honeywell (NYSE: HON) and Inmarsat (LSE:ISAT.L) have signed an exclusive agreement to provide global in-flight connectivity services to business, commercial, and government aviation customers around the world.  Under the terms of the agreement, Honeywell will develop, produce, and distribute the onboard hardware that will enable users to connect to Inmarsat's GX Aviation network.  This exclusive agreement is estimated to represent $2.8 billion for Honeywell in sales of hardware, customer service, and maintenance to airlines, government entities and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) over the next two decades.  GX Aviation is scheduled for launch in 2013, with global service for commercial, business aviation, and government customers available in 2014.

      Sorry to call you out on your blog.

      And I have no vested interest in the avaition industry, I have worked in the aviation industry years ago as an engineer, so I kind of understand where it has been and where it is headed.

      Author's profile photo Christopher Koch
      Christopher Koch
      Blog Post Author

      Hi Dan,

      You make excellent points. Just a couple of points of clarification. When I say that airlines aren't prepared for the unexpected, I'm not saying that the pilots aren't adequately prepared to do their jobs or are undertrained. It's just that they can't know what is going to go wrong with the aircraft unless they are told. In terms of dealing with unexpected problems while in the air, they do a great job, as you rightly point out. It wasn't my intention to criticize the people doing their jobs. My apologies to pilots out there.

      Regarding the monitoring of the engines, that's another excellent point.

      As I wrote in the Forbes post, the latest generation of aircraft produce loads of data—several terabytes on a single transatlantic flight—that could streamline maintenance operations, decrease fuel consumption, improve safety, and increase customer satisfaction.

      Trouble is, that’s just the beginning of the data. As you know, besides the plane itself, the other sources include the airline, aircraft manufacturers, external maintenance providers, regulators, and spare parts suppliers. Some of the data are structured (e.g., held within a database) but a significant subset—a pilot’s handwritten logbook entries, a technician’s notes—is unstructured.


      What’s needed is a way to gather all the data coming from the ground and the air together and keep it fresh—not just for individual aircraft but for the entire fleet. If airlines had access to all that data at once, maintenance planning could happen in real-time.

      So while there is data coming back to the ground, tIhink the link becould much more robust than it is today. I think what is still missing is a link that puts all the different entities involved (airlines, maintenance companies, etc.) in a position to act faster and more proactively if they only had better information.

      I think that we can agree that the industry is actively working on this and that many improvements have been made and will continue to be made.

      Thanks for your thoughtful and insightful comments!