For the ‘connected’ airplane, young engineers have right mind-set

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  • Image: Airplane Conectivity.jpg
Image: The eNabled System.jpg

Boeing engineer John Craig’s vision of the Connected Airline. (Boeing)

John Craig was “fresh out of college” when he and his group went out on the flight line for troubleshooting of the engine ignition system in the 747-400. They pulled out a drawing, “and it was all relays and diodes,” he recalled.

“I said, ‘why don’t we put this in a little circuit board with some logic gates, etc.,’ because that’s all the relays and diodes did—act as relay logic.”

It was a fine example of new thinking, but the Designated Engineering Representative (the person who functions as a company’s representative to the FAA) said it couldn’t be certified.

Fast-forward 25 years, “and you see that that function, engine ignition, is part of a software routine inside the engine controller,” noted Craig, currently Chief Engineer of Network Systems for Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

It’s just that kind of forward and out-of-the-box thinking from a young engineer that the avionics industry is in great need of today, said Craig. And he believes young engineers are up to the challenge, especially as it relates to connectivity.

“I do a lot of recruiting,” he said. “The kids I’m hiring now are phenomenal. They look at things differently. They’re energetic and they’re sharp.”

On the other hand, the expectations of young engineers are different. “When I hired in, I understood that to get to where I am now it would take a while. I think some of the young folks on the floor right now who work for me think they could walk in here and do my job. You just have to understand that mentality.”

Another way in which young engineers are different from veterans (Craig acknowledges exceptions to these stereotypes) is that the former think in one- or two-year time frames, reflecting their experience with (and expectations of) new cell phone and other communications technologies.

“They really understand this stuff,” he said.

Overall, he believes young engineers’ plusses outweigh their minuses. Their kind of thinking means more emphasis on designing “products [airplanes] that are good forever” in a way to accommodate new technologies.

Craig said young engineers are well suited to what he calls the new “avionics paradigm.” Under the old paradigm, “we build it once; we show that it meets the functional hazard, and we’re kind of done with it until we find we have failures, etc. When it comes to the connected airplane, and you have to deal with the cyber aspects, it’s a different mind-set.”

The old mind-set involved developing “proprietary systems, stand-alone solutions, and functional stovepipes,” according to Craig. The result was connectivity separated by function: one system for flight operations, one for airline operations, and one for passenger use.

“If we have an offboard link, we ought to figure out how we can leverage it for all of the services on the airplane,” he said.

For this more integrated approach, greater reliance on commercial technologies is now needed, Craig added. “We really cannot go out and invent this stuff anymore. We have to leverage what’s being done in the commercial world.”

Progress is being made, said Craig: “We’ve seen a transition from functionality being hosted in specialized hardware to functionality being hosted in more generic hardware with a software perspective.”

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