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“Data is the new oil” is a quote generally attributed to mathematician Clive Humby, but what does that saying really mean? Like oil from the ground, data holds tremendous value, but its potential can only be unlocked when accessed, refined, and harnessed effectively.  

Observability refers to the ability to derive real-time, context-rich insights from refined onboard data to enable not just a more comprehensive understanding of the state of a system—or system of systems—but ultimately to enable smarter, faster decisions and actions. While oil can power physical machines like aircraft, locomotives, and tanks—data, which is often considered today’s new, modern oil — fuels valuable insights from these assets, ultimately providing complete observability across entire transportation fleets and weapons systems. 

Commercial air, rail, and defense fleets contain massive amounts of onboard data – infinite frames of ephemeral data generated by on-vehicle systems, networks, and components. However, the challenge lies in the fact that operators and maintainers of these fleets lack the instrumentation and tooling needed to access, capture, analyze, and act on a comprehensive view of that onboard data.  

Often, the data that operators and maintainers do have access to is either stale, bound by capacity or collection method limitations, or only available post trip when downloaded to a maintainer device on the ground. Observability requires comprehensive data capture and collection, and the ability to perform real-time analysis and alerting at the edge. Apart from this broader view with granular context, effective decision making is crippled where and when it’s most critical.  

Observability Defined 

Observability and visibility are not the same.  

Visibility collects data points and makes them available for reporting and interpretation. For instance, a solution that says it can provide visibility of a system onboard an aircraft can collect and tabulate events or log files and provide an accounting of what was recorded and when.  

Observability uses data collected from multiple sources to surface unique insights. An observability platform takes onboard data and correlates it with data from other sources, like the engines, the hydraulic system, and external sources like flight statistics and weather reporting to provide insights on how and why an event occurred, not just what the event was and when it happened.  

Shift5 believes observability is critical to an organization’s ability to make smarter, faster decisions through complete data access, contextual insights, and actionable analytics at the edge across onboard operational technology (OT). In simpler terms, it’s about maximizing your understanding of what’s happening within an individual asset and across an entire fleet. Observability enables you to shift from reactionary decisions to proactive actions based on leading—not trailing—indicators.  

Observability unlocks a new level of decision-making by providing a clear understanding of what’s happening on a vehicle holistically, the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. For example, one of the common challenges operators and maintainers — two of the top beneficiaries of observability — often face is difficulty reproducing or replicating an error.  

An aircraft may only present an issue at a certain altitude or under certain conditions that simply cannot be replicated back on the ground. That can lead to countless hours of troubleshooting before root cause is determined — if it’s ever determined at all. In this scenario, a lack of observability could mean increased aircraft-on-ground (AoG) time, delayed flights, decreased block time performance, or lost revenue, among many others.  

With observability, however, operators and maintainers can see and understand exactly what’s going on within the aircraft’s onboard systems and components collectively at the moment the issue manifests. Because every frame of data is captured, compressed, translated, and contextualized in real-time, maintainers can implement predictive maintenance — to the point that they can already have the issue that manifested during flight diagnosed with parts and tools on hand to make the required repair before the aircraft ever reaches the tarmac. The implications of this are as obvious as they are impactful. If implemented correctly and fully, predictive maintenance issues could be significantly reduced, with recent survey findings suggesting that 66% of fleet downtime could be prevented by predictive maintenance implementation.  

Observability is Difficult 

Such massive benefits, however, are elusive. Why? Put simply, it’s exceedingly difficult to gain access to all the onboard data required to achieve observability. In fact, many have written it off as either impossible or too cost-prohibitive to warrant an attempt. And that’s why it’s just as important to understand not just what observability is, but also what it is not.  

Full-take Data Capture 

With data as the lynchpin of observability, full-take data capture is the foundational first step that has precluded many from achieving observability. Raw, binary data must be captured across every serial bus, protocol, and frame of data across every asset at fleet-scale. If any of those elements are lacking, you no longer have a complete picture.  

Let’s say, for example, there’s a tool that can collect data from a MIL-STD-1553 bus, but it can’t pull data from ARINC 429 or ASCB. That’s analogous to trying to understand an event involving multiple people but only listening to a single individual’s perspective. The perspective of events would be limited, with a potentially skewed timeline and incomplete or biased details. 

To get a truly accurate picture of what happened, you need to collect the perspective of multiple individuals who were part of the event. With the full data set, you will understand the timeline of activities that built up to the event, who was involved, what happened, and other contributing factors.  

Real-time data 

The second foundational element of observability is real-time data. Today’s vehicles are complex with multiple onboard networks and components, which are often manufactured by many vendors. The interconnected components require harmony to be operationally effective, and when there’s an issue, it’s often difficult to diagnose the exact root cause and effect.  

As each component on the vehicle lacks complete awareness of the onboard network itself and the adjacent components, maintainers are left to attempt manually stitching together limited insights from the discrete components to gain a full picture of what is happening. This is costly, time consuming, and often leaves issues unresolved. And, if the data isn’t real-time, it’s stale when it’s made available for decision or action.  

Hard Problems Are The Most Important Ones To Solve 

Problems that have persisted across operational technology (OT) are increasingly coming to light, with new threats to critical infrastructure making headlines at an unsettling cadence, readiness for critical defense fleets in a state of decline, and the safety of passengers and crew increasingly at risk from preventable maintenance failures.  

The good news is that observability isn’t impossible. Shift5 solves the hard problem of data access and observability, and we’ve brought numerous benefits and use cases to the market for the Department of Defense (DoD), commercial aviation, and commercial rail customers.  

In addition to the predictive maintenance use case described previously, observability also enables capabilities specific to cybersecurity and regulatory compliance. 

  • For predictive maintenance, observability provides real-time, data-driven insights needed to predict and schedule maintenance effectively, helping to avoid critical failures before they happen and to ensure the safety and performance of critical transportation and defense fleets. 

  • For cybersecurity, observability can be used to detect, identify, and alert on new anomalous activities and known threats, providing real-time notifications that can enable faster response and proactive mitigation of potential cybersecurity risks. 

  • For compliance, observability allows for the ability to automate compliance efforts for onboard fleet data by helping to ensure that it is processed, managed, and stored in accordance with regulatory requirements and industry best practices.  

Want to learn more about how your organization can leverage Shift5’s Observability Platform to overcome these challenges? Download one of our solution briefs, or click here to request a demo.