The days of carrying up to 80kg of essential information to and from aircraft are now coming to an end, as the technology behind electronic flight bags becomes more and more advanced.

Vital reference material is needed by a pilot for each flight – the aircraft operating manual, aircrew operating manual and navigational charts are just a few of the everyday essentials. But getting this information on board by the relevant parties was always a manual task.

Then in the early 1990s, a shift began away from a labour-intensive paper-orientated system towards an electronic based system and the electronic flight bag (EFB) was born.

Of course, it is perfectly possible to adapt and adopt a laptop computer to perform the same functions of a tailor-made flight bag, and in the early days some pilots did just that. But flight is a serious business, systems have to be regulated and before long a fully-fledged EFB had a professional definition. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in its FAA EFB Advisory Circular (AC) 120-76A defines an EFB as: ‘An electronic display system intended primarily for cockpit / flight deck or cabin use’. It is upgradeable, capable of displaying a variety of aviation data and is also able to perform calculations.

Different shapes and sizes

Typically, there are three classes of EFB. A class-one EFB is basically a laptop or a ruggedised laptop or tablet computer. While this type can be plugged into the aircraft for recharging it is not permitted to send or receive any data from the aircraft except from certified docking stations and/or power sources. A class-one EFB’s use is limited to pre-flight work, when the aircraft is at an altitude over 10,000ft and for post-flight use only. All other times the EFB must be stowed in the same way as passenger laptops.

Class-two EFBs are a step up and while still termed as portable electronic devices they consist of commercial-off-the-shelf hardware that is connected to the aircraft during normal operations and may connect to an aircraft’s power and data connectivity ports. This means that the EFB is able to receive data inputs from the aircraft and is often the system of choice for retrofitting a large number of aircraft.

“Only an integrated overall concept can exploit the full potential.”

A Class-three EFB is the most sophisticated and would normally be fitted to an aircraft during its construction but can also be installed after production. Boeing first certified a class-three EFB for its 777s in 2003 and now includes a class-three EFB as standard on the 787 Dreamliner. Class-three EFBs are avionics grade hardware for the flight deck capable of hosting certified software applications that are unavailable to the class-one and two EFBs.

Jeppesen, a Boeing company, began its involvement with EFBs by developing Class Three charting applications for the Boeing 777, which was later expanded to other Boeing models. The company has provided electronic charts and flight deck software applications since 1996 and worked with the FAA on the development of the FAA EFB AC 120-76A in 2002. Jeppesen’s enterprise strategist, Rick Ellerbrock, says it was one of the first companies providing EFB solutions approved by the FAA under AC requirements.

Electronic attractions

Apart from the benefits of the greatly reduced amount of paper used on the flight deck Jeppesen says there are other benefits too. “There are also safety benefits and operational benefits associated with things like airport surface moving map displays and electronic performance calculators,” says Ellerbrock.

He adds that most recently Jeppesen has also developed, “a set of EFB applications available for generic portable and installed EFB hardware systems, which help operators implement EFBs for their large retrofit fleets. It has also developed EFB software used onboard the Airbus A380.” While Jeppesen is not involved in the hardware side of EFB production, the company does have teaming agreements with companies including navAero, Teledyne, Goodrich, CMC, Astronautics and Flight Deck Resources. It also works closely with a long line of avionics original equipment manufacturers (OEM) which includes Garmin, Honeywell, Rockwell Collins and Avidyne.

Choosing the right system

In Europe, Lufthansa Systems introduced its Lido eFlightBag solution in 2006 fully replacing the paper flight bag system and integrating with the company’s Lido eRouteManual electronic charting application.

“In order to convert an airline’s existing flight operation processes into integrated digital processes, focusing on paperless flying is not sufficient. Only an integrated overall concept that brings pre-flight, in-flight and post-flight as well as on-board and ground services together can exploit the full potential,” says Marc Szepan, senior vice president, airline operations solutions at Lufthansa Systems.

“One of the highlights of our solution is that it is EFB hardware device and airframe OEM-independent. This is especially important for commercial airlines that operate mixed fleets.” In Szepan’s opinion, flexibility of the operation is key. He says: “Our solution is ultimately flexible as it can be used as class one to three. Our Lido eFlightBag can run as a class-one solution on notebooks, it can be permanently installed in the cockpit as a class-two solution or integrated with a class-three on-board information solution.”

“The shift from paper to digital data and the adoption of EFBs will accelerate during the next five years.”

So, instead of the main challenge being how to physically carry all the flight information necessary, it is now choosing the right system which causes the dilemma, “A main challenge for commercial airlines is the hardware selection. The different EFB classes have their strengths in different areas,” says Szepan.

“Class Two devices are becoming the most sought-after of the three types and there are good reasons for that. The costs of ownership for fully integrated Class Three devices are extremely high because they are treated as avionics equipment and are therefore subject to high certification standards that are compulsory for avionics systems in the cockpit.”

For the future of EFBs, Lufthansa and Jeppesen both identified market trends. While Lufthansa predicts that the most recent trend is for a combination of both class-one and two systems designed on a case by case basis, Jeppesen still sees a selling point for each of the three forms.

“We are seeing a continuing trend of pilots and operators shifting to electronic services. While many commercial operators use class-one EFBs for certain basic functions, we see them moving more toward a mix of class-three EFBs that are being delivered on their new airplanes, and retrofitting existing fleets with class-two EFBs in order to get maximum utility,” says Ellerbrock. “We see the shift from paper to digital data and the adoption of EFBs accelerating on a steep curve during the next five years.”