A Guide to Edge Computing in the Aviation Sector

A Guide to Edge Computing in the Aviation Sector - zsah

Edge computing or edge cloud is a distributed computing model that uses localised networks to bring data storage and processing closer to the devices and applications that are actually generating the information. This is in contrast to conventional cloud computing approaches, which rely on relays of information to and from remote data centres and processing infrastructure.

An edge computing approach allows devices within an edge cloud zone to react more quickly to changing conditions. It also makes this model especially suitable for applications that require split-second timing for their routine operations, or devices and systems that work in conditions and environments that are physically hard to reach, or highly sensitive. For these reasons, edge cloud has great promise for emerging technologies such as self-driving or autonomous vehicles.

One area in particular where edge computing has particular value is in the aerospace industry.

Why Edge Computing Is on the Rise in the Aviation Sector

Due to the ongoing pandemic, global supply chains have been experiencing significant disruption across all industries, with organisations having difficulty in managing their personnel, as well as fabrication and distribution of products and parts. The aviation sector has also been suffering a sharp decline in business, as travel restrictions impact airlines and airports.

In response to these challenges, many organisations have been taking measures to cut costs and improve the quality of their existing infrastructure. For aviation, edge computing can be a key contributor to positively disruptive change, as part of an ecosystem that brings together edge cloud, mobile, robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), and other platform technologies, to produce an agile and distributed infrastructure. This environment can then power a range of innovative solutions and applications, while providing troubleshooting capacity and the ability to make near real-time decisions due to the reduced latency made possible by bringing computation and data storage closer to the source.

Avionics Applications

At the operational level, edge cloud deployments can enable aviation stakeholders to harness the power of localised information gathering and processing to perform the kind of lightweight analytics that inform quick operational decision-making and rapid response. This applies across a range of applications.

Aircraft Manufacture and Supply Chain Management

Edge cloud solutions are enabling the aviation sector to transition from a linear supply model (design, source, make, deliver) to an interconnected digital supply network, or DSN. With a typical aircraft consisting of six million parts or more, this approach facilitates input from a range of ecosystem partners and contributors to the manufacturing process. In a DSN, digital modelling technologies and edge computation allow stakeholders to create a virtual mirror of the physical world, which is capable of adapting rapidly to changes in product designs and production levels, to produce a more agile value chain.

At the production level, aviation manufacturers are using robotics, digital twin technologies, and additive manufacturing (3D printing) to increase the pace of fabrication, develop sophisticated simulation and testing scenarios, and facilitate data-driven decision-making on the factory floor. Edge computing, conventional cloud, mobile, and IoT sensor and reporting platforms are providing manufacturers with greater visibility and monitoring over production lines and the overall supply chain.

Proactive Maintenance

Edge cloud networks can provide continuous high-bandwidth connectivity between aircraft and the internet. This enables the transmission of data even in mid-air, with edge computing providing a filter for the most relevant information. Servers on the ground can then selectively pull data from the edge servers on the aircraft for more detailed analysis. Real-time analysis of operational data enables aerospace engineers to spot potential problems and advise immediate remedial actions.

Predictive Maintenance

The high-bandwidth connectivity offered by edge computing networks also allows the funnelling of large amounts of sensor data from aircraft in flight into predictive maintenance algorithms. These systems enable airlines to predict component and other failures prior to their occurrence and empower organisations to take the necessary steps to address these faults. Systems can generate automatic notifications from the plane to enable ground crews to prepare for repairs at the next landing point. With access to detailed information (including video and other multimedia input), maintenance teams can more easily manage their parts and resources.

Mobility Infrastructure

Edge computing also holds potential for enabling aviation operators to develop a mobility infrastructure that incorporates smart connected vehicles within a larger transportation network. For this purpose, the edge makes it possible to process crucial information close to its source and use the cloud to support back-end analysis.9'

Potential applications include improved baggage handling with automated tractors and conveyors, strategies to optimise fuel consumption, and the development of aircraft that can automatically correct their course in response to predictions of bad weather.

Passenger-Facing Applications

At a time when “customer experience” can be the key to economic success or failure, stakeholders in the aviation sector need to do everything they can to ensure that passengers have a stress-free and enjoyable journey. Here, too, edge computing has a number of applications to contribute.

Reducing Flight Delays

By using edge cloud applications to manage the movement and activity of people and parts, airlines can improve the maintenance routines of their aircraft – one of the major causes of flight delays. For example, using a network that combines edge computing with mobile and IoT technologies, it’s possible to diagnose airline hardware using sensors, alert the nearest maintenance team based on their mobile location and closeness to the plane, and issue a real-time update to the departure timetable (if one is necessary). Data from the monitoring can also be used in predicting future maintenance requirements.

In-Flight Safety Monitoring

On board, fitting airline seats with IoT sensors linked to an in-flight edge network enables flight attendants to monitor the seatbelt and safety status of individual passengers to ensure they are adhering to safety recommendations from the flight crew. Monitoring occurs via tablets issued to each flight attendant, reducing their need to physically walk up and down the aisles.

Personalised Services

Many airlines currently provide online portals or mobile apps that enable passengers to log their preferences with regard to food, drink, and in-flight entertainment – both before a trip, and based on information gleaned from their previous journeys.

Integrating this data with seat sensors, tablet technology, and an edge cloud network creates the possibility for airlines to deliver intensely personalised services to individual passengers. For example, seat-back screens connected to the ecosystem could greet the passenger by name and provide entertainment recommendations based on their tastes in music and film. The in-flight menu can be specifically tailored to their gastronomic preferences and dietary needs. Meanwhile, personal attention from flight attendants would always be a screen tap away.

Biometric Passage

Another emerging technology also gaining traction in the aviation sector is biometrics – particularly those based on facial recognition. The individual passenger’s face effectively becomes their digital “passport”. Biometric systems are currently in place at a number of airports worldwide, providing access control and identity management for passengers from check-in to their final destination. The systems provide fast and contact-free movement for passengers at a time when health, safety, and social distancing are very much in the public consciousness.

Edge computing and mobile are facilitating the deployment of biometric systems, typically allowing airports to clip a minimal set of kiosks and scanners to their existing infrastructure, and to create a local network for data processing and digital identity management.

Economic Considerations

Airlines began seriously investing in edge cloud and connected technologies in 2019 and could be investing between $1 million and $10 million per aircraft within the next five years. When you consider that the average one-hour delay is estimated to cost an airline $600 per minute, edge computing applications such as proactive and predictive maintenance could save the world’s airlines billions of dollars annually.

There is potential for other stakeholders in the air transport ecosystem, as well. For example, hospitality providers may be willing to pay a premium for being allowed to make personal recommendations to on-board passengers promoting their hotel or resort chain as a final destination. Concessionaires and retailers could also target promotions via in-flight edge networks, also contributing to the revenue stream.

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