It may only be two small words, but big data could make the aviation industry safer, more efficient and perhaps even more fun than ever before.

As an industry, we have recognised the value of data but for many years have never really had the will – or the way – to harness it.

It not just aviation that has woken up to smell the coffee. The benefits of accessing the insights from data collection, analytics and the interpretation of that data are as clear to SMEs as they are to the multinationals.

If you can use the analysis of the data then you can improve your customers’ experience and as a result, improve your business.

Turning up the volume

The issue is just how much data there is.

Just look at airlines and how much data flies in every second. Today, a host of onboard sensors on any of the new-generation airliners record and stream a vast amount of data that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

Airbus’s latest model, the A350, can transmit around 400,000 parameters per flight – some 60% more than the A380.

The older generation A320-family jets provide 400 parameters per flight. According to a 2016 Oliver Wyman MRO Survey, the global fleet of commercial aircraft could generate a massive 98 million terabytes of data per year by 2026.

On the ground, websites, booking platforms and credit card transactions throw up even more valuable data.

Who owns the data?

The sheer amount of data is growing, and bringing it together is what makes data analytics so valuable. But as the value of that data becomes clearer, so we have an issue about who owns it.

Many components now have their own sensors, the large units such as engines have hundreds of sensors, across the airframe there are even more and all are collated to be pushed back via the “connected aircraft” for analysis and interrogation.

Therefore, it should be common sense to see that working together through the collaborative sharing of data and applied analytics could see problems identified and solved faster.

However, this new dawn for aviation brings its own questions and challenges. Who owns the rights to this data? Is it the aircraft owner, airline or leasing company? Or is it the airframer who provides the analytical tools? Or should it be the original manufacturer of the particular equipment?

And at the Flightglobal Big Data conference in London at the end of last year, there were other questions raised. What are the dangers of an over-reliance on data? Could it blunt the diagnostic expertise of experienced maintenance technicians, built up over decades? Will the big data surge simply provide too much information – a flood of figures that becomes a wood and trees scenario, impossible to manage and make sense of without an army of data scientists?

On your marks, get set

Mathew Evans, vice-president of digital transformation programmes at Airbus, speaking at the conference, talked about how the expansion of big data for operations and maintenance would be made in three distinct steps.

The first is using predictive maintenance as well as diagnostics and health monitoring to drive out the unscheduled events. To a degree, this is already the first big win. “We’re already using predictive maintenance as well as diagnostics and health monitoring to drive out the unscheduled events,” Evans said.

He predicts this will continue and by 2025 airlines using the modern connected aircraft could achieve “that ‘zero-aircraft on ground’ goal where you can expect your aircraft to not ever be down because of a mechanical fault,” he said.

Evans sees the second stage as being where big data will help remove the need for checks to be governed by set schedules. The third stage will be where the aircraft maintenance manual is a dynamic document based entirely on that specific tail number, and every check and interval will be based on the operational history of that aircraft.

This is great news for airlines who would love to see reduction in the costs of MRO. The four largest US carriers, for example, spend almost $10billion on maintenance so using predictive maintenance to anticipate when parts will fail in order and therefore making their replacement more efficient becomes a real operational and financial benefit.

But how to get it?


The OEMs like Boeing, Airbus, GE, Rolls-Royce Bombardier and Safran, as well as systems designers like Honeywell and United Technologies, are starting to create a business out of the collection and analysis of the data generated by aircraft. Non-aerospace digital experts like Google and Microsoft are using their data analytic skills to make a play for some of that potential revenue. The competition can create barriers. Safran’s Jean-Hugues Cousin, told me about some of those concerns in an interview for FINN.


“I am not sure we are achieving anything now [with data sharing]. There are more and fences between the airline, the OEM, the MRO.

By Jean-Hugues Cousin, General Manager, Safran,


He added: “The data is at the core of our business. If we want to deliver cheaper services, we need to anticipate the maintenance. To anticipate the maintenance, we need to build models and algorithms with data. At the moment, we are not sharing the data the way we could or should,” he said.



Lufthansa Technic’s CEO, Dr Johannes Bussmann. is in no doubt who the value should rest with. “I think first of all, the data belong to the airlines… because they bought a product, and it’s their responsibility to keep it in the air and to keep airworthy with all the requirements,” he told me.



Lufthansa Technik has designed its own big data platform, Aviatar, while Airbus and Boeing’s Global Services business have each launched brands to cover their analytical services –Skywise and AnalytX respectively. Boeing’s Global Services vice-president of sales and marketing, David Longridge, said at MRO Europe that a shift is taking place in Boeing’s aftermarket activities “from manual to analytical skills”, and that the airframer intends to capitalise on its engineering expertise to assist airlines when managing their aircraft’s maintenance – not just for Boeing types.



Making it happen

According to Ken Sain, vice-president digital aviation and analytics for Boeing Global Services, digital innovations could drive 10% efficiencies for airlines, the equivalent of introducing a new-generation aircraft type across the whole fleet.

Rolls-Royce has developed a predictive maintenance app that studies a number of parameters from the fuel, avionics, and hydraulic systems to look for potential problems. The app was developed and delivered in just 12 weeks. The British manufacturer is also going a step further and is developing a predictive intelligent engine which can identify and heal problems itself before they happen.



Big Data really is THE game changer.

Steve McFeely, chief engineer connectivity, Boeing, said: “It is predicted that more than 50% of organisations globally will use advanced analytics and proprietary algorithms to cause disruption of entire industries.

“For example, the Boeing 787 had an 80x increase in the number of data parameters over a 737. The 777X will show a 100x increase. The goal is to ensure that every aircraft that leaves our factory is connected, but the key is to ensure that they are cyber protected.”

And this is the biggest fear. Cyber protection is key to the full realisation of benefits to the industry – but that is another story.

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