As the Le Bourget air show came to a close, one thing stuck in the mind: just how much talk there had been about digital tools. It’s still quite a long step to imagining the event becoming a French version of the Consumer Electronics Show, which takes place every year in Las Vegas and has become the major international venue showcasing startups, digital tech products and new innovative ways of doing things. And in fact the VivaTech fair that took place in Paris the previous week, featuring inter alia a report on FoodTech presented by L’Atelier BNP Paribas, might also have a strong claim here. However, when you look more closely, the Paris Air Show could well be about to become one of the world’s great digital showcases.
A new way of seeing things
OFFICAL POSTER FOR LE BOURGET 2017
Of course, Le Bourget is still first and foremost an air show, a venue for ordering planes made by Airbus, Boeing and the others – but that’s far from being the whole story. When you work in a given sector you tend to see things in terms of continuity, follow in the footsteps of history. And when digital technology comes along, you basically regard it as a way of developing your product and the uses to which it is put. Except that the digital revolution is a bit different. It forces us to see traditional industries in a different light. Aeronautics experts therefore need to ask themselves a question: what if, instead of viewing planes simply as flying buses, we started to see them as connected objects?
A protected system
The very notion might surprise many when you see how long it took airlines to start installing WiFi in their planes…and also given that moves towards onboard digital facilities might run up against safety concerns. The United States authorities are even talking about forbidding laptops on board US-based airliners. However, regarding an aeroplane as a connected object rather than a flying machine is the result of quite a few parameter shifts. Firstly, the huge amount of information exchanged between the ground and the cockpit: weather, traffic status, safety information, and so on. And with the expected growth in drone traffic, there will be progressively more – and more vital – information that certainly should not be shared with the passengers. Consequently, the industry needs a protected, closed system.
IFE: providing an enhanced digital UX
However, when passengers board a plane nowadays, they are often keen to watch films or play video games; they want to enjoy all the electronic entertainment on offer. Accordingly, In-Flight Entertainment (IFE), is a booming service. Advances in digital technology have led to greater focus on the all-important user experience (UX) which in turn means that on-board electronic entertainment has made huge strides and today IFE systems can be tailored to suit each individual passenger. They are usually managed by the airline’s own commercial team, and remain under the control of the aircraft’s crew. IFE systems have been around for a long time. One aspect currently being studied however is to manage the system remotely, in the Cloud, so as to avoid having to install a heavy-duty server on board. The arch-enemy of any aircraft is weight, so this is one way of reducing the weight of a plane which is being taken very seriously by aircraft manufacturers and the airline companies.
ENHANCED EMBEDDED SERVICES
Digital technology also plays a key role when actually designing the plane. The most important comfort criterion for a passenger is leg room. Today, with the progress in Computer-Aided Design (CAD) – a field in which French multinational software company Dassault Systèmes is a leader – constant progress is being made in the design of aircraft seats. CAD is also used for the wings and engines – the entire aircraft in fact. Digital design is also being harnessed to optimise fuel consumption, with twin imperatives – economic and environmental – in mind.
Big Data to the rescue
TOMORROW’S PLANES WILL BE DATA-ORIENTED
Another example of the way digital technology is disrupting the aerospace industry is the growing use of Big Data. Data analysis gives airline companies even deeper knowledge of their customers, their choices, their habits and expectations in all areas: the services they want, the number of pieces of luggage they bring, what they would prefer to eat and drink on board, etc. All part of the total UX that makes for satisfied customers. And a satisfied customer is a loyal customer.
Digital technology as applied to aeronautics is not limited to the actual aircraft. Air transport comprises an entire ecosystem which starts with booking a ticket and includes baggage management, road or rail transport to the airport, the airport car park, and more besides. And going forward, this entire air transport universe will be managed more efficiently by using digital technology. There will also be major consequences for the design of the terminals and the infrastructure for hosting the planes and looking after the passengers. Now that sounds quite like another subject that I and my colleagues at L’Atelier BNP Paribas spend a lot of time thinking about: the Smart City!