By Jeff Zacuto, Senior Director of Commercial Marketing

The aviation industry is at a crossroads in an era of rapid technological advancements and evolving consumer expectations. The Connected Aviation Intelligence Summit, attended by industry leaders, policymakers, and tech innovators, offered a glimpse into the future of aviation—one that hinges on connectivity, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), regulatory compliance, and, most importantly, data.

Indeed, the industry’s pulse is increasingly data-driven because its transformative power can be a proactive asset for real-time decision-making and future planning. What follows are some of the critical insights offered by the thought leaders at the summit, which offer us a roadmap for navigating the future of aviation—an industry on the brink of data-driven, transformative change.

Cybersecurity is a foundational pillar, not an afterthought

  • The traditional bolt-it-on-later approach to cybersecurity is inadequate.

  • An integrated approach to cybersecurity should be integral to project planning from the beginning.

  • “Zero trust” cybersecurity is a good start but can fail in implicitly trusted environments. 

In an era where cyber threats are not just hypothetical but a daily reality, the aviation industry finds itself at a critical juncture. Hector Morales, the Acting Air Traffic Organization’s Cybersecurity Group Manager at the FAA, underscored this urgency in his keynote address. With 17 years at the FAA, Morales brings a nuanced understanding that straddles regulatory and operational terrains. 

Morales identified a significant shortcoming in the prevailing approach to cybersecurity: the afterthought of appending security measures to already developed systems. This omission inflates the time and cost and leaves room for vulnerabilities. Instead, Morales suggests we take an integrated approach, where cybersecurity is an intrinsic part of project planning and system development. This shift is not merely technological but cultural, acknowledging that cybersecurity is as vital to aviation systems as safety protocols and operational efficiency. 

The FAA, Morales emphasized, is not just a regulator but a collaborator in the aviation ecosystem. While no specific regulatory mandates exist for onboard cybersecurity, the need for a unified effort among various regulatory bodies is palpable. Morales spoke of using “zero trust,” a multi-layered cybersecurity model that operates under the assumption that threats could be lurking anywhere—even within your own network. This approach calls for a comprehensive security strategy akin to the multiple layers of physical security in a person’s home, from locks on the front door to locking interior rooms and safes.

The challenge, however, extends beyond the mere implementation of robust security measures. Morales candidly addressed the difficulty of proving the value proposition of integrated cybersecurity, especially in the absence of an immediate crisis to act as a catalyst. This challenge is deeply rooted in organizational culture and extends to the decision-making tables where budgets and resources are allocated. 

The more we think about the long-term implications of cybersecurity on safety, operational efficiency, and public trust, the more it becomes evident that technology alone can’t be the panacea. The role of emerging technologies like AI and machine learning in enhancing these cybersecurity efforts becomes increasingly relevant, offering a new frontier in predictive maintenance and threat detection.

AI is setting a new standard for predictive maintenance

  • AI and ML are now core components of aviation operations.

  • Predictive maintenance models can enhance safety and efficiency.

  • “Augmented analytics” can help automate data analysis for faster decisions.

  • Data aggregation and fusion can predict failure events, helping to reduce costs. 

The aviation industry is no stranger to the rigors of maintenance protocols. However, the traditional methods of scheduled maintenance are increasingly being replaced by predictive models, thanks to the advent of AI and ML. Angela Saffin, Portfolio Leader for Analytics Solutions at Boeing Global Services, and Seth Babcock, Associate Director of Tech Ops Solutions and Data Analytics at Collins Aerospace, emphasized these technologies’ transformative impact.

Angela’s presentation was a call for making machine learning and predictive maintenance part of the daily operations in aviation. She introduced the concept of “augmented analytics,” which automates parts of the data analysis process. This automation allows engineers and analysts to focus on creating predictive maintenance algorithms, thereby making faster and more accurate decisions. She also highlighted the role of data aggregation and fusion, where data from various sources, like full-flight sensor data and maintenance repair information, are combined to help predict failure events.

Seth’s insights complemented Angela’s, emphasizing the role of data analytics throughout the entire design lifecycle of aviation components. Collins Aerospace is already leveraging machine learning for predictive maintenance, which has resulted in reduced costs and increased efficiency. Seth pointed out that data analytics are not just for maintenance but are also integral to the design and testing phases, affecting an aviation component’s entire lifecycle.

Integrating AI and ML into predictive maintenance is not just a technological shift but a paradigm change. It allows for a more proactive approach, where technicians can address potential issues before they escalate into actual problems, enhancing safety and operational efficiency. This proactive approach is not just about preventing failures; it’s about optimizing performance, extending the life of components, and ultimately delivering a better experience for crew and passengers.

As we consider the broader implications of AI and machine learning, it’s clear that these technologies are not isolated to maintenance but are part of a larger ecosystem that includes data-driven decision-making across various operational facets. This interconnectedness underscores the need for a comprehensive strategy that leverages data analytics for predictive maintenance and overall operational efficiency and security.

Harnessing data enables informed decision-making across operations

  • Data observability is crucial for aircraft security and safety.

  • Data impacts maintenance, fuel efficiency, staff communication, and passenger experience.

  • Operators, manufacturers, and regulators must take a more holistic data approach.

The aviation industry is a complex web of interconnected systems, from flight operations and maintenance to cybersecurity. As we’ve seen, AI and machine learning are revolutionizing predictive maintenance, but their impact doesn’t stop there. The power of data-driven decision-making extends across the entire operational spectrum, a point emphasized by Bobby Anderson, Vice President/General Manager for Commercial Aviation at Shift5, and Ryan Stone, President of SmartSky Networks.

Bobby focused on the connected future of airlines, emphasizing the importance of data observability. He argued that a secure aircraft is inherently a safe aircraft, highlighting the role of data in ensuring both security and safety. He also touched upon the delicate balance needed in data collection, especially considering the perspectives of pilots and unions. His insights underscore the need for a holistic approach to data that considers its impact on everything from maintenance and fuel efficiency to staff communication and passenger experience.

Ryan’s presentation on the future of in-flight connectivity discussed how data analytics could drive better decision-making in real-time. He emphasized that the next frontier in aviation is not just about faster or more reliable connectivity but about how that connectivity can be leveraged for better operational decisions. Whether it’s optimizing flight paths for fuel efficiency or real-time engine performance monitoring, data analytics provide the tools for making these decisions more effectively.

The key takeaway is that data is not just a byproduct of operations but a critical asset that can drive operational excellence. It’s not enough to collect data; it must be analyzed and acted upon in a timely manner.

This integrated approach requires combining data from various sources and departments, from flight operations to maintenance and cybersecurity. 

Integrating data analytics into decision-making processes is not just a technological requirement but a strategic imperative. It enables airlines to be more agile, adapt to changing conditions, and respond to challenges more effectively. As we continue to explore the role of emerging technologies in aviation, it becomes increasingly clear that data-driven decision-making is the linchpin that holds these various elements together, ensuring operational efficiency, security, and safety.

Building consumer trust in AI and ML is no small task

  • AI and ML hold potential but face challenges of reliability and public trust.

  • Consumer confidence influences the pace of technology adoption.

  • Transparency and public involvement are key to building trust.

As we’ve established, data-driven decision-making is the linchpin of aviation operational efficiency, security, and safety. However, the adoption and success of these emerging technologies hinge on another critical factor: consumer confidence and public trust. Allan Twigg from United Airlines and Dan Chambers from UPS discussed this topic, including the role of consumer confidence in adopting AI and machine learning technologies.

Allan emphasized the potential of AI in mitigating pilot fatigue and enhancing flight operations. While the technology promises to revolutionize the aviation industry, he acknowledged significant hurdles related to reliability and public trust. For instance, an autonomous flight deck may be technologically feasible, but it raises questions about consumer acceptance. Would passengers be comfortable boarding a plane without a human pilot? The answer to this question is tied to how much trust consumers place in these technologies, influencing their adoption rate.

Dan, on the other hand, discussed how UPS is using machine learning for predictive maintenance, inventory optimization, and even weather forecasting. While these applications may not directly impact passengers, they do have a bearing on the overall efficiency and reliability of the service—factors contributing to consumer confidence. He highlighted the importance of being smart about what data to record and how to use it effectively. He emphasized that consumer confidence would be a significant factor in how far operators could integrate AI and machine learning into commercial flight operations.

The challenge, then, is not just technological but also perceptual. The aviation industry needs to work on building trust, not just in the safety of these technologies but also in their ability to enhance the overall flight experience. This trust-building involves transparent communication about how operators use and safeguard data and involving the public in discussions about ethical considerations.

In essence, consumer confidence acts as both a catalyst and a checkpoint for technological advancement in aviation. It’s a dynamic interplay between what is technologically possible and what is socially acceptable. As we look toward a future where collaboration between different departments and regulatory bodies becomes increasingly essential, the role of consumer confidence cannot be overstated. It’s the social fabric that either accelerates or hinders technological adoption, making it a critical factor in shaping the future of aviation.

Collaboration is the silent engine of aviation innovation

  • Collaboration among stakeholders is essential for progress.

  • A unified approach is needed between departments, partners, and regulatory bodies.

  • Collaboration must extend to data collection and usage.

Consumer confidence sets the stage for technological adoption, but the behind-the-scenes collaboration between various stakeholders turns potential into practice. Norm Haughton from Air Canada, and the diverse panel of speakers from the session “The Connected Future: Exploring the Next Stage of Connectivity in Airlines, Predictive Maintenance, and Enhanced Operations” emphasized collaboration’s critical role in the aviation industry.

Norm outlined Air Canada’s ambitious plans for a ‘Connected’ aircraft, emphasizing the airline’s commitment to making Wi-Fi ubiquitous across its entire fleet. Achieving this goal isn’t a solo endeavor; it requires seamless coordination between different departments within the airline, as well as with external partners and regulatory bodies. He stressed the importance of a unified approach, where marketing, operations, and cybersecurity teams work in concert to deliver a safe and efficient in-flight experience.

The panel discussion, which included experts from commercial aviation, flight operations, and product management, echoed this sentiment. They discussed the complexities of integrating technology into aviation, touching on topics from data analytics and AI to cybersecurity. The panelists agreed that as regulations evolve, there could be a move toward standardizing how data is collected and processed. This standardization isn’t just a regulatory requirement; it’s a collaborative effort involving conversations with pilots, unions, and other stakeholders to navigate the complexities of data collection and usage complexities.

Collaboration extends beyond the walls of individual organizations. It’s about creating a cohesive ecosystem where airlines, regulatory bodies, technology providers, and even the public work together to shape the future of aviation. This collaborative approach is essential for tackling the industry’s most pressing challenges, from cybersecurity to data management.

In a rapidly evolving landscape, where technological advancements are as constant as they are disruptive, the need for collaboration becomes even more pronounced. Through these collective efforts, the industry can adapt to new challenges, whether they’re technological hurdles, regulatory shifts, or consumer expectations. As we pivot to examine the industry’s need for agility and adaptability in technology, regulation, and security, it becomes clear that collaboration isn’t just a best practice—it’s a necessity.

A post-pandemic world is our new normal, and we must remain adaptable

  • Post-pandemic adaptability is crucial in technology, regulation, and security.

  • Remote work technologies impact user expectations.

  • Flexibility is needed in regulatory frameworks and security protocols.

  • Increased connectivity heightens the importance of cybersecurity.

Collaboration lays the foundation for adaptability, a quality that has become indispensable in the post-pandemic world. Andrew Drake, Manager of Aviation Cybersecurity at NetJets, touched on this during his presentation. He discussed the aviation industry’s need to be agile and adaptable in technology, regulation, and security.

Andrew emphasized that the pandemic has been a catalyst for change, forcing the industry to rethink its approach to operational effectiveness and security. The widespread adoption of remote work technologies like Zoom and Teams has altered user expectations and behavior, affecting how airlines approach onboard tech support. This shift necessitates a more agile approach to technology that can quickly adapt to changing consumer behaviors and needs.

But adaptability isn’t just about technology; it’s also about regulation and security. Andrew pointed out that the pandemic has posed challenges for existing security measures, such as face ID technology, which became less effective with the widespread use of masks. This realization required quick adaptations like using PINs instead of complex passwords, making it easier for crew members to access information during flights. Such agile responses to unforeseen challenges underscore the need for flexibility in regulatory frameworks and security protocols.

The post-pandemic world has also heightened the focus on cybersecurity. With increased connectivity comes greater vulnerability, making it imperative for the industry to be adaptable in its approach to security. This means implementing robust security measures and staying prepared to modify them as threats evolve. 

In essence, the post-pandemic landscape has made it abundantly clear that adaptability is not a luxury but a necessity. It’s a multi-faceted challenge that spans technology, regulation, and security, requiring an agile approach that can quickly pivot in response to an ever-changing environment.

Striking a balance between collection and privacy when collecting data

The agility to adapt in a rapidly changing environment extends to data collection. As discussed by multiple panelists and presenters, the aviation industry faces the complex task of balancing data collection with the perspectives of pilots and unions. The data collected isn’t just a series of numbers; it’s information that can impact job performance, safety, and privacy. Pilots and unions are understandably cautious about how this data is used, stored, and shared.

Bobby Anderson elaborated on this point, emphasizing that security feeds into safety, and while a secure aircraft is inherently a safe aircraft, achieving this security often involves collecting data that pilots and unions may find sensitive. The challenge lies in collecting this data in a way that respects these concerns while still providing the actionable insights needed to improve safety and efficiency.

This balance is not just a technical challenge but a human one, requiring open dialogue and collaboration between all stakeholders. It’s a nuanced issue that calls for a nuanced approach, one that respects the human elements involved while still leveraging the power of data for the greater good. Still, the aviation industry is at a crossroads, facing challenges as much about technology as they are about people and processes. 

The road ahead: Key takeaways from the Connected Aviation Intelligence Summit

The aviation industry stands at an inflection point, grappling with challenges that span technology, regulation, and human factors. Below is a summary of the key takeaways from the summit:

  1. Integrated Approach to Cybersecurity: One of the key takeaways is the need to shift from “bolting on” cybersecurity measures at the end of system development to an integrated approach where cybersecurity is considered from the outset.

  2. The Role of AI in Predictive Maintenance: AI and machine learning are not just buzzwords but are actively used in predictive maintenance, significantly reducing costs and increasing efficiency.

  3. Data-Driven Decision-Making: The importance of making data-informed decisions was emphasized across multiple sessions. This is crucial for everything from predictive maintenance to effective cybersecurity measures.

  4. Consumer Confidence in AI: As AI and ML technologies continue to advance, consumer confidence and public trust will significantly affect how quickly these technologies are adopted, especially in sensitive areas like autonomous flight decks.

  5. Collaboration is Key: Whether between different departments within an airline or between regulatory bodies, collaboration is essential to tackling the complex challenges facing the aviation industry.

  6. The Importance of Adaptability: The industry needs to be agile and adaptable, not just in terms of technology but also in its approach to regulation and security, especially in a post-pandemic world.

  7. Balancing Act in Data Collection: There’s a delicate balance that needs to be struck in data collection, especially considering the perspectives of pilots and unions. This balance is crucial for the successful implementation of any data-driven initiative.

From the imperative of integrated cybersecurity to the growing role of AI in predictive maintenance, the industry is undergoing a transformation that requires a multi-faceted approach to finding solutions. Whether the need for more robust cybersecurity measures or the delicate balance required in data collection, the key to success lies in the industry’s ability to adapt, collaborate, and innovate, ensuring a safer, more efficient, and more sustainable future for all.