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Only connect

iCabin is a collaborative project to create a networked intelligent aircraft cabin, announced at AIX 2018. Ian Harbison reports

The ever increasing presence of wifi on board aircraft, combined with the trend of using big data for predictive maintenance, is leading towards the inevitable development of a system that can monitor, record and then transmit information to the ground from a multitude of sources in the cabin, including equipment, services and passengers.


RFID has been a forerunner, being used to quickly monitor date sensitive items like oxygen bottles and life vests (in the case of life vests, it can also be used to confirm their presence, a requirement for flight), but this is essentially a passive system.


For the future, the basic parameters include current, voltage and pneumatic pressure, which can be used to determine whether a huge variety of systems are working properly.


In the seat, this would include recline mechanisms, inflatable cushions, and the IFE system, but the sensors could be extended to cover other activities. For example, fitting a strain gauge to a seat allows movement in the seat to be measured, whether of the passenger or, if the aircraft is not in use, of degraded seat foam slowly returning to shape. A temperature sensor could check the passenger and possible overheating of electrics.


Confirmation that seat belts are fastened can be supplemented by confirmation that overhead bins are correctly closed. In turbulence or an emergency landing, the bins could be locked while unsafe passengers could be quickly identified and made secure. Other position data could include trays and back rests.


In the galley and lavatory, those basic parameters would include correct functioning of electrical equipment and water supplies, while position sensors would confirm that stowed trolleys were properly locked and secured. 


More specialised applications are also possible, such as a mobile phone signal detector; a hygrometer for measuring cabin humidity; a light meter; and even a tricresyl phosphate (TCP) detector, which would warn of engine oil contamination in the cabin air system. This could also apply to deicing fluid, another common contaminant. Cabin crews often report sick after these events but there is little testing done to show that these chemicals were actually involved.


However, before this can become a reality, there is a need to define a common standard for all this data transfer. At present, each manufacturer has its own closed system, whereas the ability to communicate means that cabins can be equipped with new and improved functions as and when they become available, and new and innovative products and applications can be integrated into the intelligent cabins more quickly.


Development of this standard is now underway in the intelligent Cabin (iCabin ) project, with the main sponsors being Boeing and Etihad Airways Engineering. However, the project is being funded by the Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi), German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, which, in December 2017, provided a €3.9 million grant under its Luftfahrtforschungsprogramm (LuFo, Federal Aviation Research Programme).


This has brought Bühler Motor, Diehl Aviation, KID Systeme, Maintenance Center Europe and Zodiac Aerospace into the project, along with the Technische Universität Hamburg (Hamburg University of Technology, (TUHH)) and the Duale Hochschule Baden-Württemberg (Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University (DHBW)). The research project, which received approval in December 2017, has an expected completion date of March 2021.


Etihad Airways Engineering, co-initiator of the project with Boeing and Steering Committee member in its role as associated partner, is providing first hand maintenance, operator expertise, and feedback regarding the use and benefits of the new technology.


Bernhard Randerath, Vice President Design, Engineering & Innovation, says his department will develop technical use cases and provide user requirements from the different target groups within the airline and MRO. He points out that it currently too many cabin mechanics to dispatch an Airbus A380 as physical checks have to be made on all galleys and lavatories and every first and business class seat to confirm that they are fully serviceable. The airline has carried out a number of studies on passenger movement in the seat, being able to detect sleep and also nervousness about connecting flights. >>

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