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Aircraft IT Operations - August/September 2013

Author: John Badger
This article appears in Issue 11: the August/September 2013 edition of the Aircraft IT Operations eJournal. For your own free subscription to the eJournal - click on 'SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE' for full details.


Smart content takes tablets and iPads to the next level

There are a host of reasons, say
Capt. John Badger and Ed Kase at InfoTrust Group, why smart content and XML can significantly improve document production, delivery and usability.

When American Airlines became the first commercial airline to receive FAA approval to use iPads in the cockpit, and United Airlines gave 11,000 iPads to their pilots, they did more than just eliminate reams of paper manuals in favor of an electronic device. These industry leaders took the first step toward delivering smart content to their pilots. And that is more significant than, and will probably outlast, the attractively packaged but usefully functional devices on which that content is delivered.

In this White Paper we will to review early uses of the tablet and iPad for Flight Operations, describe the shortcomings of traditional PDF-based content models that most airlines are currently using, and explain how the use of smart content more fully realizes the greater potential for an entirely new digital experience that can help pilots access the right information more quickly, reduce IT costs, and facilitate regulatory compliance for airlines.

Quick wins with tablets and iPads

Launched as consumer products, but with early adopters including a lot of ‘gadget’ people like pilots and IT staff, these devices very quickly became assets in corporate mobile IT infrastructures.

These early adopters saw immediate potential for tablets and iPads. For an airline, iPad adoption achieves a number of benefits from the outset. This adoption eliminates paper manuals from the information distribution system. Back office staff no longer need to produce, ship, and track massive amounts of paper. Pilots are no longer required to spend excessive time updating manuals with revised content. Electronic access to content removes the weight of all of this paper from the aircraft, thus saving fuel and related costs. Finally, in addition to these efficiencies, pilots now have faster, easier access to essential and up to date information, thus improving safety.

First steps with digital content

A number of airlines have adopted tablets and/or iPads to date including:
  • Alaska Airlines which deployed iPads June 2011 and uses PDF content;
  • Sri Lankan Airlines which was the first Asian airline to gain iPad approval in August 2012;
  • American Airlines which was the first airline authorized to use the iPad in all Phases of flight from September 2012;
  • Air France which started equipping all of its pilots with iPads from September 2012.

Airlines around the world are adopting tablets, mostly iPads, for Flight Operations. However, initially many are focusing on PDF-only content and, in those cases, the tablet or iPad has simply become a PDF reader. These devices are capable of providing a much richer user experience, so the next logical step is to more fully realize the potential of a tablet or iPad.

To understand the benefits of smart content, it’s necessary to understand where PDF content falls short. A manual delivered as a PDF document is like a book; navigation still relies on a Table of Contents (ToC) or an index. Bookmarks are tied to specific pages so that, if a revision causes a manual to repaginate, the bookmarks become wrong, useless or disappear entirely and the user is forced to recreate these bookmarks. Content is locked to the document, limiting the potential for content reuse. Authors have to create (or copy/paste) content everywhere that content is needed, which is time consuming and error prone, resulting in inconsistent information across manuals. Updating content on the tablet or iPad has to be ‘all or nothing’, which entails high transfer costs because complete manuals have to be delivered every time there is a revision, even if only a small amount of content has changed… gigabytes of information result in high data transfer costs and these large file transfers can also be very time consuming. Also, there is limited end user functionality available in a PDF, which means only a basic search can be made; and no effectivity filtering can be applied, so everyone gets the same information rather than information specific to the aircraft they are currently operating. In a similar vein, there is little to no interactive capability which can hinder or delay pilots’ ability to access information. Finally, end user customizations are not persistent; in other words, one size has to fit all, meaning that all pilots get the same information and there is no flexibility to give pilots only the information they need.

Reaching the next level

Smart Content is the way forward. Some airlines might choose to get there more quickly than others, but the benefits for everyone are clear.

Using smart content leverages more of the capabilities of these tablets and iPads. XML content consists of individual content components, or ‘chunks’ of information. To deliver revised XML content you don’t need to download a whole monolithic book (or to download a potentially very large PDF document) in order to get the information that’s relevant to what you want to know now. Navigation relies on hyperlinks to the exact content that is needed, not simply to the general subject area or start of chapter (as from a PDF ‘ToC’ page) and can even link across manuals to allow users to check related content and context where relevant. Also, where bookmarks or annotations are made by the user, they are not page dependent but reference the specific piece of information, wherever it is and these personalizations will move with that content if it moves: so bookmarks and annotations, once made, will always be functional and correct. Smart content, such as XML is format independent and therefore is not tied to any particular layout (PDF, web page, etc.). This means that it can be viewed on a tablet, through a web browser, or in any number of different formats. XML content is automatically assembled, which reduces or eliminates human error, and these content ‘chunks’ can be reused anywhere that the same information is required, whether in a different manual or in a different context such as content for a training program. The relevant content can simply be referenced from the manual and reused wherever else it is needed. Not only will information be delivered more quickly but also with improved consistency and accuracy. Content can now be delivered to pilots according to what they specifically need.

Is there a dark side to XML?

There is a perception that XML is ‘hard’ to use and understand, but that reality has changed. In the early years, XML would not have been regarded as user friendly by the standards of today but, at the time, it was considered a significant step forward in managing and delivering content.



Fig 1: XML…the early years                                                                                 InfoTrust Group

From the beginning, based on the design of XML, it has been possible to create content once, then deliver it multiple times. Manuals or other forms of assembled content could be delivered as incremental updates. Reuse enabled improved information consistency and accuracy. It was possible to deliver content in the proper context, in much the same way that we’re proposing to deliver information to pilots according to what they need.

Today, with improved authoring tools, XML has evolved, conforming to the popular paradigm, WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get)…

Fig 2: XML user-friendly appearance                                                                  InfoTrust Group

… and yet XML still retains all of the advantages from those early days plus a modern, user-friendly appearance and functionality. Further, OEMs have adopted delivering manuals in XML format and forward thinking airlines receiving that content have been developing processes to leverage smart content. Smart content delivers expanded end user functionality and it enables revisions to be made incrementally. It allows content to be shared between manuals and even to be shared between applications while, because of the ‘create once, use many times’ capability, that content (and any revisions) remains absolutely consistent wherever it is used.

Realizing the potential of tablets and iPads

We deliberately say tablets and iPads because the market is changing and XML-based smart content will work on any platform. But, given the functions in which these devices are used, it is critical for safety and consistency that all material is exactly the same as to content and structure on the tablet or iPad as it is on any other device employed by the airline.

But there are many other reasons for using smart content and an XML capable tablet or iPad solution. For a start, you’ll immediately enjoy improved end user usability, resulting in safer operations. You’ll be able to deliver the most current information through incremental updates, delivering the right information to each user because content delivery can be filtered by individual, group, aircraft type, individual aircraft, etc. Users will be able to drill down directly to the content needed (through metadata) and use hyperlinks to navigate to related information, even across manuals. User customizations such as bookmarks and annotations are persistent.

What else should airlines expect from tablet and iPad solutions?

The right solution can deliver more benefit to airlines when other usage scenarios are considered.

To comply with aviation regulatory statutes, pilots need to acknowledge that they have reviewed and incorporated revised content. The right solution will offer pilot acknowledgement of updates and provide functionality to allow an airline to verify, audit, and report on pilot compliance.


Pilots are prompted to acknowledge revised information directly from the app, which is automatically tracked for immediate compliance reporting.

For both large airlines with thousands of pilots or smaller carriers with hundreds or fewer, the airlines need to manage users of its systems. When choosing a solution airlines need to consider user management.  Can you limit users to certain content, for example, pilots only load the manuals for the aircraft they operate that day, based on effectivity? Can you group users, for example, so that pilots of a certain type of aircraft only get manuals for that type of aircraft? This minimizes distractions and reduces bandwidth requirements.


In a single view, pilots can quickly see their documents, new revisions that require their acknowledgement, and documents they have flagged as favorites.

Any pilot application should take into account context.  Where does the pilot need the information? Under what conditions? The application running on the tablet or iPad should be designed by pilots for pilots. Any buttons and other user interface controls should be big and easy to operate in adverse conditions, such as extreme turbulence. Similarly, day/night screen contrast for presenting information is an advantage as well. Black text on white background is recommended for day use, and white text on black background for flying at night will keep pilots’ eyes from adjusting in different lighting conditions. And finally, unlike consumer apps that often maximize the use of vibrant colors, tablet apps for pilots—for which color can signify alerts—should minimize the use of color for instances in which it enhances usability.

Conclusion

Tablets and iPads offer more than just the opportunity to go paperless on the flight deck. Take a step back and consider the way you create, manage, and deliver Flight Operations content—starting with the limitations of a document-centric approach versus the benefits of a content-centric approach. You likely will uncover multiple opportunities to gain greater benefit out of an iPad deployment to hundreds or thousands of pilots.

When you look beyond the immediate benefits of tablets and iPads on the flight deck, a smart content-centric approach complemented by regulatory compliance capabilities, flexible user management, and an optimized user interface provide the next level of tablet and iPad performance in the cockpit of the 21st century.

In short, when an airline decides to switch its manuals from PDF to smart content, it isn’t only the content that’s smart.

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