Books written by Ray Sullivan

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Sky High iPad

It's fair to say that the penetration of the iPad into all consumer and many business markets is nothing short of phenomenal.  From home use to market research to sales presentations to stock control - there doesn't appear to be an industry or application that is immune to its lure.

One industry I would have expected to be resistant, though, is the aeronautical industry.  Although it is some years since I worked in aviation I wouldn't have expected much to have changed in terms of technological conservatism - that's one of the paradoxes of the aeronautical engineering world; it's often viewed by those outside the industry as space age and cutting edge but in reality it often lags behind the drag curve in technology adoption.  The impression of being cutting edge is probably because many innovations were originally developed to solve an aviation need and then rolled out to other uses, giving the impression that aeronautical engineering is racing ahead when in reality the development will have taken many years to come to fruition.

I have to say the reluctance to rush in with new technology is correct in principle; having worked in aircraft technology procurement I have seen the almost overwhelming amount of checks and balances that have to be met before any change can be made to a design.  As an engineer I have worked on a significant variety of military aircraft that have one thing in common - robust systems with multiple redundancy.  The consequences of a piece of equipment failing or a chunk of computer code locking up are too serious to contemplate on an aircraft at 50000 feet, so the designs and build standards are such that if a component fails, it shouldn't be remotely catastrophic.

So, I was a little surprised to find out that iPads have not only made it on-board commercial aircraft to assist with passenger manifests but havealso  made it into the cockpit.

At the moment they are required to be powered down on take off and landing and are subject to certain restrictions such as being mounted securely.  The advantages are obvious - the devices can carry all the manuals and navigation charts an aircraft can ever need, saving significant weight which reduces operating costs or, perhaps more relevantly, increasing potential for revenue.  It isn't the first attempt at digitising the essential documentation for a flight, but previous attempts retail at tens of thousands of dollars, took years to develop and had to undergo rigorous testing to satisfy the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), the US equivelant to the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).  It must be galling, and not a little perplexing, to the manufacturers who have jumped through multiple hoops to qualify their equipment to see a consumer device used with what looks like unstructured testing.

To be fair, the iPads have been put through some significant tests by various airlines, including an impressive test to demonstrate their abilty to withstand an explosive decompression, but interestingly Apple don't appear to have been involved in these tests, nor do they have the stamp of a structured regime where the parameters are defined, the pass/fail points identified before testing starts and a complete analysis of failure impacts completed.

And it's gaining pace: Delta Airlines have obtained permission to use the devices at all phases of the flight, from pre-flight through to chocks-in.  At least one airline is looking at integrating the devices into the existing flight equipment: the details are a little vague so far but I guess we're looking at feeding the iPad navigational information direct from the aircraft sensors.  Will it go the other way - will the iPad be allowed to provide inputs to the aircraft?  Unless it's properly designed and tested, I hope not.

I'm not against the idea of using consumer products in aircraft - the potential to reduce the cost of mundane equipment that has virtually no safety impact on a flight sounds attractive as it should keep costs down and improve implemention times.  However I'm cautious about rushing to use what has become the must-have executive toy in the cockpit purely because it's the sexiest device on the market.  Sure, the iPad is one heck of a versatile device, too versatile in the case of a flight deck, but it really should earn its place along with all the rigorously tested equipment up there. 

It has already been flagged by opponents to the concept that using an iPad (or Kindle, Kobo, Nook) to replace the navigational charts and aircraft manuals creates a couple of issues - first, if the device fails, you lose all of your essential literature, a situation reasonably resolved by doubling up on iPads and applying a little statistical calculations, one would think.  Except anyone who is involved in aeronautical procurement will point out that pattern failures are the next concern, and that requires very careful and detailed testing over time to become comfortable with.  The second objection raised is the point that currently, Delta excepted, the iPads have to be powered down on landing.  Occassionally the odd chart or manual might be handy just then.  Not insurmountable, but robust testing and qualification would be nice.

It's not a question of whether iPads will join the flight deck - they're up there now.  It's a question about whether they should continue to be used and, perhaps, whether someone should start writing up a specification for them to be tested against.  A difficult task; they exist and they do what they do. Importantly they don't do what they don't, no mattter how important that feature may appear in a specification.  My guess is that the specification won't be written - the FAA seem to be rolling over on this one already.

My hope, for my future transatlantic flights, is that when the announcement comes over the intercom insisting that all portable electronic devices are turned off - that the pilots follow suit.

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