The Future of Flight Management Systems: Moving to the Cloud

SmartSky Networks, GE Aviation, and Mosaic ATM, funded through a NASA innovation award, are working on a simulation and flight-test program to provide a digital twin of an aircraft’s flight management system (FMS) on the ground synced up to the one on the flight deck. It would be accessed over a secure internet connection to a cloud service, similar to VPN.

Currently, ground support does not have access to the same valuable information from the FMS that is available on the flight deck – a flight management system in the cloud could be the answer.

An FMS in the cloud may be useful for business aircraft as it will provide additional support and information for single-pilot operations. With SmartSky’s high bandwidth, low latency, and bidirectional capability (to transfer data at equal rates to and from the aircraft), the FMS in the cloud will also enhance inflight entertainment and connectivity by supporting real-time responsiveness for live streaming, large file transfers, and video conferencing – a draw for business customers.

Syncing Flight Deck FMS and the Ground

There are many ground-based automation systems, such as for air traffic control, air traffic management, and flight operations, but there is still a gap in the ability to share information to and from an aircraft.

The first phase of the cloud-based FMS research focused on developing the digital twin capabilities. SmartSky Networks (an aviation communication technologies research startup, based in the U.S.), and Mosaic ATM (a U.S. company conducting research and development of new concepts for air traffic management) designed an FMS on a flight deck that was synced up with an FMS on the ground. GE Aviation later joined the team, providing their complementary modular GE TrueCourse flight management system. A trial rollout of this air-to-ground network was completed in July 2022 to provide bidirectional connectivity for business jets and turboprops.

This new digital twin FMS is expected to be certified soon. It is planned to enter the airline market first, followed by the military, business aviation, and rotorcraft sectors. The system has been designed to be modular so while the base software is standardised, modules can be added or removed to meet the needs of a particular aircraft model. For example, there is a rotorcraft performance database module and one for electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) vehicles.

Cloud-Based FMS for Trajectory Negotiations

After proving that the SmartSky system can operate a digital twin FMS in the cloud, SmartSky Networks, Mosaic ATM, and GE Aviation are now working on the second phase – trajectory negotiations. Simulations are expected to start in August. It is worth noting that in the trials, the FMS will be in ‘shadow mode’, meaning that it will not control the aircraft in any way.

A cloud-based FMS would not only enable flight deck information to be shared with the ground but would link to various sources not accessible on the flight deck, such to as higher-resolution weather data and information on the other aircraft in the airspace. Pilots could therefore have more information available to make decisions about trajectories and deconfliction. Better access to real-time, and historic, turbulence data, will enable flight routes to be altered more effectively and reduce the occurrence of flying through turbulence, this would particularly help business jet operators by making their flights smoother and more comfortable flights.

Safety-critical tasks will still be performed on the aircraft, while non-safety-critical tasks may be moved to the ground. This will mean that an airline dispatch office or business jet fleet manager would manage reroutes as needed with more information to and from the flight deck. Additionally, a cloud-based FMS would support flight plan changes across air traffic control boundaries.

Cloud-Based FMS and Electronic Flight Bag Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity is of course a major factor that will be considered, particularly with the cloud connectivity to the cockpit and electronic flight bags (EFBs), both of which will be sharing data with the cloud twin FMS. The flight deck FMS or EFB will treat data received through the cloud FMS as untrusted data sources that have to be validated by the pilot who can accept or reject it.

This does raise the need for further awareness of electronic flight bag security. Electronic flight bags are becoming more popular and almost essential, particularly with the integration of advanced technical systems, such as the cloud-based FMS, that will interact with them. While EFBs and cloud-based FMS offer many advantages, they also pose new security risks. EFBs already connect to the internet in some way, they can also be physically stolen or lost, exposing sensitive data to unauthorized individuals. In addition, many EFBs are not encrypted, meaning that data on the device could be accessed by anyone who gains physical access to it. There are some easy steps to take when using EFBs to protect the devices and data.

6 Steps to Protect Electronic Flight Bags (EFBs)

  1. Use a strong password.
  2. Only connect to secure networks and avoid downloading apps from untrustworthy sources.
  3. Keep EFBs updated with the latest security patches.
  4. Never leave EFBs unattended in public places.
  5. Be aware of phishing scams that could target an EFB account.
  6. Report any suspicious activity on an EFB immediately.

There will be built-in cybersecurity measures for the cloud-based FMS, but as with any aviation safety measure, there should be layers of barriers.

In Summary

A cloud-based flight management system would enable enhanced data sharing between the ground and aircraft, which would allow for more effective and efficient decision-making. This not only would increase safety but has the potential to reduce operating costs and enhance services. Safety-critical tasks would still be performed on the aircraft, but ground support could manage non-safety-critical tasks, such as rerouting and flight plan changes. Cybersecurity is a major consideration for such a system, but there will be built-in measures to protect data. A cloud-based FMS would continue to enhance the aviation industry to keep pace with developing technology and customer expectations.

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