Airbus inching closer to solving Big Data mysteries
Despite flying taxis, attack drones, and the possibility of a comeback of supersonic transport, this year’s Paris Air Show was relatively low key. Aside from the addition to 737MAX family, there were no big new platform announcements to critique or mega mergers to dissect.
That doesn’t mean, however, that nothing game-changing was afoot. Years from now, when executives recall the 2017 event at the Paris-Bourget Airport, they may well remember it as the year proprietary walls in aviation began to be dismantled and plane connectivity moved a major step forward.
While the industry has been touting the potential of Big Data for a while, the ability to share data and use advanced analytics to their fullest has often been stifled by systems that only work with data from one original equipment manufacturer or on that manufacturer’s platform. Additionally, no commonly shared database existed that allowed multiple parties tap into on-demand customer needs.
Developing a single database and platform
That appears to be about to change with this year’s Air Show and the announcement of Skywise, a cloud-based, airline-centric platform. The product of a joint venture between Airbus and Palantir Technologies, this new technology is expected to allow for the first time sharing of data irrespective of an aircraft’s manufacturer or origin. Its aim: to become a single reference point for aviation able to provide airlines with a real-time window into the health of an entire fleet. And while it is hardly the first effort towards this end, Skywise appears to have addressed some of the major obstacles to success encountered by earlier technology offerings.
For instance, the major engine makers for decades have had the ability to use data generated by their engines to monitor the equipment’s status and improve performance. GE Digital has developed a suite of applications that now include the ability to compare a pilot’s fuel management statistics with the average across the airline fleet, with the aim of developing strategies to reduce fuel consumption. While some of the most advanced work in the industry is being done by the engine makers, their efforts have been focused solely on the safety and performance of one part – albeit one of the most critical – of the aircraft.
Meanwhile, Boeing has also already developed an advanced solution built off of the vast data generated by the 787 aircraft. This technology is now available for other Boeing aircraft, and its efficacy is being significantly enhanced through the consolidations of the manufacturer’s maintenance technology in its Boeing Global Services division and its data analytics capabilities in its AnalytX operations.
Proprietary can be an obstacle
But for airlines, proprietary solutions sometimes mean having to maintain more than one to handle the various planes and engines in their fleets. Trust issues also have emerged, almost akin to the way car owners view mechanics. Some don’t always want to share the data generated by their planes, even with the manufacturer, or leave decisions on servicing with someone else.
Here is where Skywise may offer a more workable approach as it overcomes the trust problem by proposing to give airlines control of the data. Additionally, by developing the solution with a non-aviation technology partner from Silicon Valley, Airbus guaranteed a less proprietary approach that is resulting in an open platform better suited to serving the entire industry.
While Skywise began as an Airbus system to coordinate data from manufacturing, engineering, and services and then apply advanced analytics, Palantir was able to change the focus of the technology to Airbus customers. The platform already has several early airline adopters, including Delta, JetBlue, AirAsia, and Emirates, with encouraging early results. For instance, Emirates has reported an improvement of 1 percent in its operational reliability in recent months, thanks to the expanded data analytics.
Aspirational, but promising
To be clear, Skywise remains aspirational, but if successful, the benefits of consolidating data on a single platform can be substantial, potentially leading to enhanced optimization of flight operations and fleet management, including efforts to reduce fuel consumption and improve punctuality, as well as a reduction of flight disruptions by alerting airlines earlier of the potential of weather systems and airport delays developing.
The timing of Skywise may also help aircraft makers as they enter a period of anticipated slower growth. For revenue expansion, they may need to look to services, and development and acceptance of platforms like Skywise, which allow manufacturers to sell analytics capabilities and predictive maintenance functions, will be key to helping growth in services take off in earnest. For Airbus, the goal for services is to reach 20 percent of revenue by 2020 from the company’s current 6 to 7 per cent.
While true plane connectivity has to date remained elusive, its promise remains vast. Whether Skywise turns out to be the innovation that finally pushes the industry over the precipice towards it is hard to predict. At the very least, the new technology appears to be on the road to addressing its most vexing problems.