Electronic Flight Bag evolution

credit uTair
Electric Avenue

The development and introduction of electronic flight bags in aviation – EFBs – has taken some time, but now they are now considered to be standard operating equipment on air ambulance and rescue helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft around the world. So, what differences have they made to the pilots using them?

Pilots need to take a wealth of information into the cockpit with them, from maps to manuals to weather charts. Traditionally, this meant carrying a bag weighed down with reams of paper documents: the ‘flight bag’. These days, ‘electronic flight bags’ – portable computers loaded with specialised software – allow pilots to save not only weight, but also time.

The early days of the EFB may have involved individual pilots taking personal equipment onto their aircraft, perhaps laptops with standard office software to help with calculations. Nowadays, tailored applications are commonly paired with lightweight tablets such as Apple’s iPad. Adopting GKN Fokker Services EFBs on three of its Callenger 604 jets in 2012, Switzerland’s Rega commented that tablets (in this case, iPads) ‘reflect the most ergonomic and least room and weight demanding way of an EFB integration’.

electronic flight bag tablet aircraft

Feature-packed

The beauty of digital tech is, of course, its flexibility. A tablet can be loaded with the user’s choice of software to process and display information in a convenient manner, and applications can be easily added or updated as needed. As well as replacing paper documents, an EFB can provide additional functionality, such as performing fuel calculations, or receiving real-time information from the operations centre such as updated weather data. Rega’s helicopter crews have benefitted from getting mission taskings via the EFB, rather than over the radio as used to be the case.

In the US, Metro Aviation announced in August 2015 that it would introduce EFBs for its fleet of 120 aircraft. Listing some of the benefits, the air medical provider explained: “The EFBs will allow pilots to access charts, maps, company manuals and a variety of weather and flight planning resources.”

As another example, UTair Helicopter Services of Russia said in November 2017 that it had become the first Russian helicopter operator to introduce an EFB based on mobile tablets, which provide crews ‘with convenient access to all materials required for flight preparation and performance, including route and flight maps, charts of aerodromes, heliports and landing sites’.

David Walley, AW169 Program Manager, and the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust have been using EFBs in their operation for a number of years. “AvPlan EFB gives us unrivalled situational awareness in the cockpit. It combines all the charts we need, approach plates, weather and NOTAMs all in a single package,” Walley said. “We can plan a flight quickly, brief, file it and then be airborne in minutes. We use AvPlan EFB on every flight, VFR or IFR.”

We use AvPlan EFB on every flight, VFR or IFR

Depending on the set-up, it’s possible for the EFB to interface with the plane or helicopter’s onboard electronics to provide data to the pilot or relay it to the operations centre. For example, UTC Aerospace Systems offers an EFB platform that allows the user’s tablet device to access aircraft power and avionics data during all stages of flight, such as ground speed, GPS position and aircraft heading, as well as the aircraft’s communications systems, ‘which facilitates the transmission of real-time information such as weather and flight performance tracking’.

credit uTair

Software provider ForeFlight combines GPS position and altitude data with global terrain and obstacle data from Jeppeson to provide terrain hazard and obstacle warnings. US-based PHI Air Medical first adopted ForeFlight in 2011. Edward Goodman, airplane flight standards manager at PHI Air Medical, managed the EFB integration programme. He has highlighted the ‘profile view’ as a powerful feature: “You can draw a line across the map and view the highest obstacles. There’s a regulatory requirement for [visual flight rules helicopter air ambulance] operators that mandates an analysis of terrain and obstacles along the planned route, and then fly at a minimum altitude above the terrain and obstacles. The profile feature has helped our helicopter operations by allowing us to do that analysis in a simple and efficient fashion.”

EFBs can help with completing checklists as well. For example, ForeFlight suggests that using digital checklists reduces cockpit clutter, adding: “Digital checklist templates keep important safety procedures organised and easily accessible for every phase of flight, and helpful colour-coding leaves no step unchecked.”

And it’s not just aviation-related apps that can be useful. Harald Brendel, who was involved in the implementation of EFBs at DRF Luftrettung in Germany, noted that its systems included programs such as calculators, currency converters and Skype.

map electronic flight bag

US-based Air Methods has equipped its fleet of aircraft with HeliEFB’s Flight Risk Assessment (FRAT) module. Prior to each flight, pilots fill out a flight risk assessment on the iPad and receive flight approval from their OCC (Operations Control Center) within seconds. In addition, Air Methods is in the process of adding HeliEFB’s Weight & Balance and Performance module to further expand the scope of their EFBs. “We operate a fleet of over 400 aircraft and HeliEFB’s capabilities to be centrally managed gives us full operational control over our fleet-wide EFB data. We are using EFBs as a tool to enhance our business processes, operational speed and flight safety,” explained Craig Houtz, EFB manager at Air Methods.

Nigel Thomson, Flight Safety Officer for Mission Critical Services for Babcock International Group, told AirMed&Rescue that he ‘can’t imagine operating without his Airbox Aviation Command and Aircraft Navigation System (ACANS)’, as it ensures the safety of both crew and airport. He explained: “The simple fact is that by using ACANS it helps me complete our ‘life critical’ mission more effectively, especially when faced with short notice or unexpected changes, a norm when conducting HEMS operations. Be it pre-flight planning or inflight re-planning, landing site selection and potential hazard identification, information is well presented, accurate, user friendly, adaptive and intuitive in its use.”

Improvement vs paper

One of the problems with paper is that an operator has to regularly spend time making sure the documents are up to date. With an electronic unit, on the other hand, you simply let it download data updates when needed. UTair Helicopter Services noted that the relative ease of keeping aeronautical information and regulatory documents up to date has helped to reduce costs.

Malcolm Humphries, managing director/chief pilot for the UK’s Capital Air Ambulance, told AirMed&Rescue: “EFBs have provided us with an excellent method of reducing cockpit paperwork and clutter. With a fleet of 11 aircraft, the old paper Jeppesen airport charts that we used to carry proved to be a major headache to keep up to date. Our operations department needed a dedicated night shift which regularly updated the reams of paper airport charts required to be kept onboard. The new Jeppesen iPad electronic replacement service is always up to date and easy and intuitive to use.”

Goodman of PHI Air Medical commented: “EFB technology has allowed [us] to simplify the management of required publications and navigational charts, while simultaneously lowering the recurring costs of managing these subscriptions. The time required for pre-flight planning and post-flight paperwork has decreased and will continue to decrease as PHI Air Medical becomes more reliant on EFBs.”

In addition, with digital, there are none of the delays – or costs – associated with the need to physically print and distribute new documents. Air Alliance of Germany started using EFBs in 2014. Joachim Wirths, COO, told AirMed&Rescue that it’s a major advantage that administrators can remotely update the documentation: “It was in former times a safety issue or safety concern to launch worldwide flights correctly with always updated and valid documents as required. Different revision dates for documents, different revision procedures and the distribution of such revision hard copies to crews and aircraft was always a big challenge for an aviation company.” He added that just to keep the aircraft documentation up to date required the work of more than one member of staff: “Depending on company size, it took a lot of man hours to track all files belonging to each aircraft correctly and to implement the weekly or monthly revisions in a correct manner.” There was also the organisational challenge of getting the proper documentation to the crew on time when an aircraft was away from its home base.

Ongoing costs are also saved through the lighter weight of an EFB, which means the aircraft consumes measurably less fuel.

Wirths of Air Alliance said the weight and space savings are key: “The biggest advantage is to save weight and to generate more space available for other needs. This is very important especially for crews flying smaller ambulance jets as available space is always an issue here. [Previously], a big flight case could weigh approximately 30 kgs and would carry all aviation charts and documentation necessary to cover a worldwide operation.” Ongoing costs are also saved through the lighter weight of an EFB, which means the aircraft consumes measurably less fuel.

Just how significant are the fuel savings? DRF Luftrettung said in 2012 that the 600g tablets adopted for its air ambulance jets compared to 35kg for the previous paper versions. Udo Kordeuter, DRF Luftrettung fleet commander, said: “If we extrapolate this to our annual average use, the tablets will save about €7,000 per year in [fuel] costs.”

Other than costs, another advantage of EFBs is that information is easier to access. Jim Arthur, director of operations for Metro Aviation, told AirMed&Rescue: “When we introduced EFBs to our fleet, it gave our pilots access to charts, maps, company manuals and planning resources. We effectively enhanced the pilot’s ability to access the information they need to do their job safely and effectively.” He added: “It really streamlines our process and keeps everything in one place, which is ideal when going through data.”

fuel savings

Evolution/future

The EFBs in use with many air ambulance operators may be state-of-the-art, but with digital technology, things rarely stand still for long. The software continues to improve, as Jan van der Heul, vice-president of sales at SkyTrac, explained: “Since last year’s launch, we’ve refined an in-flight weather application. With no additional hardware or software, the operator can also access up-to-date regional weather information off the tablet.”

Capital Air Ambulance is looking at how to get more out of its devices. Malcolm Humphries said: “We are continuing to investigate future possibilities for the EFB, including electronic aircraft technical logs and paperless navigation logs.”

It’s not only the apps, but also the hardware that changes. Joachim Wirths of Air Alliance noted that the IT industry is one of the fastest-growing commercial sectors worldwide. He added: “Therefore the replacement of tablets/EFBs in use must be part of the business plan. Such replacements will most probably take place every three to four years as the hardware will become more and more unable to cover all new developments.”

pilot tablet electronic flight bag

Safety and security

Many commentators remark on the impact that EFBs have on safety, for example citing the reduced pilot workload and the automatic data revisions. On safety, Malcolm Humphries of Capital Air Ambulance told AirMed&Rescue: “We have added a tailored safety management application to our iPad EFBs which allows the flight crew to directly access the company safety system whilst airborne, together with easy reference to company operations manuals and aircraft flight manuals. The crew are able to report any safety reports directly from the EFB during the flight and the company is notified on landing.” He added that pilots are able to review destination security briefings using the MedAire application.

One potential concern is the possibility of electronic devices being hacked, which could lead to software failure or data loss

One potential concern is the possibility of electronic devices being hacked, which could lead to software failure or data loss. Jan van der Heul of SkyTrac noted: “Data security is a big concern in the industry and operators need to look at the data repositories, the data in transmission and the security of the app itself. Our mobile form technology is actually hosted directly on our secure ISAT-200A onboard server on the aircraft. The interface is pulled up only on designated tablets. We use an encrypted auto token to identify the app to our servers and the logins can be user-specific as defined by the operator. During the submission process, data is sent over an encrypted satellite connection or WPA/WPA2.” He added: “For our ground repositories, we have all of the security infrastructure and redundancy that you’d expect when accessing a private bank account.”

Meanwhile, Alexander Killeffer, a spokesperson at UTAS, said: “Our ADM/EFB solutions are rigorously tested both during development and on a regular basis in service to maintain system security. This is especially important as aircraft become more connected. We work closely with our customers to regularly review and implement best practices for network security.”

Making the change

However beneficial the technology is, the move from paper to screen must be carefully managed. Joachim Wirths of Air Alliance commented that it’s important to spend time developing an implementation plan tailored to the individual company. He added: “An uncontrolled implementation of hardware and software will lead to huge difficulties and will delay the required civil aviation approval process accordingly.”

Jan van der Heul of SkyTrac recognised that transitioning to digital processes can be hard for operators in the air ambulance industry. He told AirMed&Rescue: “A lot of these operators have specific forms and processes already in place. Many things may be working well except for the paper aspect. Manual data entry on paper is time consuming and information requires re-transcribing into accounting or SMS systems, which often leads to delays and errors.” An EFB provider can take steps to ease the change, said van der Heul, such as digitising the operator’s existing forms such as flight and crew reports so that staff don’t have to relearn processes from scratch. He added: “Flight data, engine data and timestamps can all be auto-populated directly into the Skytrac EFB in real-time. When the pilot or crew submit the form from their tablet, that information is forwarded over to the ops team and can be pushed immediately to other software programs.” This means that operators don’t need to retrain staff or revamp existing procedures from scratch.

Here to stay

Considering all the advantages they bring, it’s not surprising that Wirths believes that EFBs will move from being a standard to a must: “Definitely the usage of EFBs is the future in aviation and will become mandatory in a modern cockpit and for the aviation industry. There is no way back as aviation technology and IT technologies are going to merge or pair to each other more and more.”