Commercial airline pilots need to keep track of a lot of things. From fuel loads to passenger and cargo manifests, there is a ton of paperwork and forms to be filled out and submitted before a flight can depart.
To streamline these processes, airlines like American and United are beginning to give pilots iPads equipped with specially designed apps to speed preparation for takeoff and, more crucially, cut weight (less paper to carry means more fuel saved).
To cater to those carriers, aerospace supplier Honeywell has created an app called Weather Information Service. It’s a standalone subscription service that uses on-board data connections to provide real-time rain, clouds, and turbulence forecasts, and current conditions to pilots. It operates independently of any other Honeywell systems, so an airline doesn’t need to be an existing customer to take advantage of it.
The app allows pilots to focus on weather and “really make some sense of it for safety and forecasting,” says Honeywell’s chief pilot, Joe Duval. “Especially in a situation where you have a longer flight or cross country or over water.” Planning ahead to avoid bad weather helps airlines better stick to schedules, avoid turbulence, and even save fuel.
It’s similar to what Honeywell offers on its modern avionics suites, but for the thousands of planes with older-style cockpits, adding real-time, highly visual weather forecasts to an iPad that may already be in a pilot’s flight bag is a savvy move. This is a retrofit solution for planes that might have a decade or more of life left in them, but that aren’t worth a multi-million dollar investment to install a state-of-the-art glass cockpit.
For many pilots, real-time weather and forecasts are now delivered in a text-based format or through voice updates from a dispatch center. The app, which collects data from a worldwide network of national weather sources (which are then distributed through Honeywell’s data centers), is a subscription offering for airlines looking to upgrade the weather readings their pilots get. Honeywell wouldn’t disclose costs, which would vary depending on how many pilots get the software, as well as other products the airline already buys from Honeywell.
The app is specially designed to work over the extremely limited (that is, slow) data connections available on airliners. It also plugs into systems used by airline dispatchers. Pilots can see their planned path, including altitude, and make adjustments before taking off based on anticipated weather, or in midair as conditions change.
Pilots have the “ability to look at a forecast in the future and see how a certain storm or system is going to move over time,” says Duval. “You can see your flight plan on the screen and move the forecast into the future and see how a storm might affect your flight plan.”
Dispatchers can push alerts to pilots through the app as well, notifying them of significant weather and what to do about it. By combining long-range data with the on-board weather radar that many aircraft carry, pilots can get a good idea of what they’ll be dealing with, and act appropriately.
Honeywell says similar products could be created for other industries like shipping, rail, or trucking, but the apps would be specially customized—like this one is—to display the information in a familiar and useful way.
To avoid the cost and effort of securing FAA approval, Honeywell set up the app so it doesn’t have to meet special regulations. The app doesn’t display the current location of the airplane, and the map doesn’t automatically move to follow the plane as it flies. If it did, the risk that it could display incorrect information would merit more oversight from the feds. Honeywell says, however, that it’s worked with the regulatory body so it is aware of what’s going on and can share any concerns. Honeywell does plan to update the app a few times a year, adding new features and services as it goes.
This isn’t the only standalone app that pilots may soon be using. Apple and IBM have built an iPad app called Plan Flight that lets commercial pilots estimate fuel usage for upcoming flights. So next time you see your pilot playing with an iPad in the cockpit, she may not be playing Candy Crush.