SkyService pilots replace paper with tablet PCs

Airline pilots must have, in the cockpit, guides, maps and other aviation requirements during flight, but SkyService Business Aviation has done away with the usual paper shuffling and cumbersome three-inch thick binders.

Pilots need a variety of paperwork including navigation charts and maps, manuals for equipment usage and corporate operating procedures, and certification documents. “When you add that all up, that’s a lot of paperwork in both volume and weight,” said BC Campbell, vice-president of flight operations for SkyService.

“If you have an airplane that can go around the world, the charts you would need to take that cover the world,” said Campbell, “would take up the equivalent of a large suitcase.”

On top of that, frequent updating of the materials is a tedious and manual process, said Campbell, because it entails, every couple of weeks or so, removing outdated materials and replacing them with new ones.

With the goal of improving operational efficiency and pilot productivity, SkyService decided to replace the traditional paper-based approach with wireless rugged, lightweight and portable tablet PCs that still make available all the required paperwork.

The chosen form factor was important given the cockpit environment, said Campbell. Laptops, for instance, come with a large keyboard and a lid that has to be opened and closed. But tablet PCs are portable, lightweight, yet have a screen large enough to display chart and maps. The use of large buttons on the touchscreen make the device, according to Campbell, very “pilot-proof” because “for day and night flying and a little bit of turbulence, you don’t need to be looking for the little X in the corner to close something.”

The chosen device, General Dynamics Itronix DuoTouch II Rugged Tablet PC, from Mississauga-based GD-Itronix Canada Ltd., is put through a series of tests, like vibration drop, to ensure they can withstand the elements, said Pat White, vice-president of strategic marketing with GD-Itronix Canada.

“It’s a very rugged piece of equipment. We all know that turbulence and drops can occur in situations where the plane encounters rough weather,” said White. “Having something that is of a significant level above and beyond your traditional commercial-grade tablet or notebook was very important.”

The tablet PC is also equipped with DynaVue touchscreen display technology, developed by the company two years ago, to render outdoor viewing in bright sunlight easier without maximizing battery life.

The added advantage over a commercial-grade laptop, said White, is that a tablet PC is essentially “a tool” designed for a specific purpose, and the applications it houses are designed around the device’s particular form factor.

“Tablets are a different experience than you would have with a notebook,” said White.

The Electronic Flight Bag software from Mirabel, Quebec-based On-Board Data Systems that sits on the device “provides a set of features which, combined, provide a viable alternative to the whole paper flow,” said president Thomas Murray.

The software is basically a content management system that manages a library of PDF files or customer-defined content, which can then be distributed across a spectrum of mobile devices, which in the case of SkyService is the tablet PC, said Murray. Updates required to the content are synchronized in a Montreal-based data centre managed by MCI. A SkyService administrator can track the update status of any document on any tablet PC, and even send out reminders to pilots to accept updates on their device.

In an e-mail to ComputerWorld Canada, Sam Barone, president and CEO of the Canadian Business Aviation Association, said cost and return on investment are always factors in whether the adoption of an emerging technology will eventually become a trend. “While some early adopters take to the technology immediately,” wrote Barone, “it is when the financial impacts and fuel savings can be calculated that it will become standard equipment on new aircrafts.”

SkyService operates more than 50 airplanes, with 90 per cent of those planes having already transitioned from the paper-based approach, said Campbell. Pilots will carry two tablet PCs during flight to ensure redundancy, as well as have a power source should they need to recharge the device.

Campbell acknowledged “a little bit of skepticism” initially with some pilots used to the traditional paper documents and binders, who, during flights, will still have print outs to accompany their tablet PCs. But the benefits far outweigh the initial discomfort, said Campbell, because the devices bring assurance that the manuals and charts are always up-to-date.

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