The Analytics Adventure: Data Science Makes Aviation Safer, Greener, and More Efficient
GE Aviation’s Digital Group
What is data science, and how can it be used to make the world a better place?
I've spent the last 13 years at GE asking these two questions. As the current Director of Data and Analytics at GE Aviation's Bangalore operations, I guide a team of dedicated Data Scientists who spend every day building solutions that address these issues for our airline industry customers.
I'd love to share my insights into these all-important considerations, but first, a little about my professional journey at GE and how it’s helped me build the framework for tackling our customers’ biggest challenges.
A Period of Intense Professional Development
I started my career here at our Digital Technology Leadership Program. This 24-month training initiative took me from India to New York City, and saw me working at GE Capital India, GE Corporate, and NBC Universal.
During that period, I set up a new data center resulting in a reduction in year-over-year infrastructure spend and optimized a CRM platform to lower monthly downtimes. I also led corporate governance initiatives and vendor audits resulting in overcharge recovery, and a post-acquisition integration program that realized IT systems savings.
This time of intense professional development and international work gave me a solid grounding in enterprise-wide IT, infrastructure, and systems management. This knowledge has served me well as I have expanded my areas of expertise and moved from one GE division to the next.
I then started working at GE Grid Solutions, where I worked with supply chain systems like enterprise resource planning (ERP) platforms and learned how to use data in manufacturing and business processes, such as New Product Introductions, Order to Cash, Procure to Pay, RMA processes, and Product & Process Quality.
These efforts led to my involvement in our Digital Thread initiative, a program that established interconnections between business processes across the life cycle of GE products and divisions, introducing traceability into processes, material, machinery and personnel throughout order management, procurement, inventory management, manufacturing, testing, and repairs.
Moving Beyond Data Silos and Embracing Analytics-Driven Insights
As I moved from GE Grid Solutions to GE Digital, I took a deep dive into the vast quantities of data generated by our various operations. I started to explore how we were beginning to link data sets that were traditionally somewhat siloed—like purchase order information, manufacturing, inventory, and financials—within the context of our Brilliant Factories program.
I also looked at the data that was coming from our factory floors. One application used industrial IoT data generated by machines on our assembly lines to calculate wear and tear and to then predict when we needed replacement parts. Like our other projects combining big data and analytics, it was a matter of understanding the problem statement, translating that into an analytical objective, ingesting vast quantities of data, acquiring the process, machine and personnel context, and then employing the appropriate machine learning tools to derive insights.
From Brilliant Factories, the next logical step was to move to developing, packaging, and offering these analytics capabilities to our customers as a service they could use to explore and optimize their own operations. This led to the next part of my journey: leading a team working on enhancing the analytics capabilities of our Predix platform, and also utilizing the platform to serve GE’s customers.
About a year ago, I was named Director of Data & Analytics at GE Aviation in Bangalore. I lead our Commercial Data Science team of experts dedicated to providing analytics-driven outcomes in the areas of technical, flight, and network operations.
Aviation Is Complex and Data-Driven
Aviation is a complex industry, and it is massively data-driven. The quantity of information it generates is staggering. In 2019, airlines carried 4.5 billion passengers. When you consider that modern aircraft are equipped with thousands of sensors generating hundreds of millions of data points and terabytes of information every day, you start to get a picture of the complexity involved.
GE Aviation Digital provides products and services that include analytics tools to make sense of these large amounts of data. Our Data and Analytics division employs cutting-edge data science to provide digital solutions and consulting services that help airlines manage their day-to-day operations in areas such as maintenance, scheduling, fuel consumption, safety, and other elements of network, flight, and technical operations.
While airlines can, and do, develop in-house analytics and management tools, GE Aviation can provide a fresh set of eyes and an outside perspective, bringing together best-in-class analytics and deep domain expertise to help airlines solve their toughest challenges.
Innovating Since the Dawn of Modern Aviation
Our Data and Analytics division is more than an IT consultancy. We are part of a company whose involvement in aviation goes back to the dawn of heavier-than-air flight.
In 1903, the same year the Wright Brothers built and flew the first airplane, GE hired engineer Sanford Moss, who co-invented the turbosupercharger. This device eventually enabled aircraft engines to operate without power loss at high altitudes and led to the development of today's jet engines.
One of our most recent innovations is the metallurgical 3D printing of aircraft components. Our GE Additive division uses CAD software to design engine parts that incorporate structural patterns to reduce weight and increase rigidity, and which are then "printed" using electron-beam lasers that melt and fuse metallic powder into objects.
GE Aviation's Data and Analytics division leverages our parent company's decades of industry experience and combines it with big data to help airlines move people and cargo. The underlying technologies that power air transport have evolved over this time, but the operational issues remain the same.
A Single Destination for Aircraft Maintenance Documentation
One of our leading products is the AirVault platform, a digital solution that simplifies and automates aircraft maintenance documentation.
AirVault collects and collates aircraft maintenance records by integrating with monitoring and evaluation and ERP systems. It uses OCR, full-text scanning, and manual key entry to digitize checklists, maintenance manuals, and other documents used internally by airlines and externally by their suppliers across the entire maintenance ecosystem.
This suite of specialized tools and applications facilitates document workflow, distribution, verification, analysis, and collaboration. It also simplifies regulatory compliance and air fleet safety by ensuring accurate audits and data reporting through customized dashboards.
Playing Back Flights to Reduce Fuel Consumption
FlightPulse is a pilot analytics platform we developed with Qantas Airlines of Australia. It combines complex flight data with crew schedules and other operational metrics that help commercial pilots visualize personal analytics to improve flight safety and operational efficiency.
Pilots can "play back" previous flights on a tablet or laptop and look for any issues that require corrective actions and performance tweaks. These explorations help them better collaborate with their flight team, ground crews, and their airline.
One of the most mission-critical applications of FlightPulse is fuel-savings, as pioneered by Qantas. Every kilogram of jet fuel used generates three kilograms of greenhouse gases, so reducing consumption not only saves money but also lowers an airline's carbon footprint.
Pilots can conserve fuel by modifying the way they operate the aircraft. Each minute of taxi burns 3-10kg of fuel. A continuous descent arrival / approach represents 10% less fuel, 40% less noise and 150-640kg less CO2 (which is equivalent to 48-203 kg fuel). All of these savings add up over thousands of flights every year.
Network Operations Is a Numbers Game
Aviation is very much a numbers game, and this is most obvious in network operations. Airlines schedule flights months in advance and, despite their efforts, weather, mechanical issues, traffic congestion, and airport conditions can delay a departure or arrival, which can have a cascading effect on all other flights and network operations.
GE Aviation's Network Operations applications and services use sophisticated optimization algorithms and advanced machine learning to plan for disruptions before they occur, and to get airline operations back on track when they do. They help detect problems, notify the airline, and generate multiple solutions to recover from disrupted operations, helping improve on-time performance (OTP), protect revenue, and keeping customers happy.
All solutions are scalable, and can be used by an international carrier with a large fleet and network, or a small regional airline that is doubling its fleet from 20 to 40 aircraft. We equally cater to full-service and discount carriers, through products and services that have been designed for what’s universally applicable across the industry, and for addressing that which makes each airline unique.
Every airline, no matter its size or the market it serves, must pick the right problems to solve. While operational efficiency, safety, and customer satisfaction are paramount, and regulatory imperatives must be respected at all times, different airlines have different priorities.
As an example, a carrier operating a transatlantic airliner with sleeping berths will crew it differently than a budget airline that is flying a 90-minute turboprop commuter flight. An airline with 1,000 planes will encounter different logistical issues than one flying 50.
No matter the level of complexity of its operations, an airline must know what kinds of systems and processes to use and how to implement new business processes within the workforce. GE Aviation's Data and Analytics department is here to help them deal with all of these concerns.
Data Science Is Making the World a Better Place
So what is data science, and how does it make the world a better place? The answer, as I see it, is simple. Data science organizes chaos. It uses human ingenuity, advanced algorithms, and machine learning to make sense of—and impose order upon—unstructured information. It is the best way we have of asking and answering complex questions.
If we look at the numbers, which is what data scientists do, we see that commercial aviation is experiencing record growth and providing vastly improved service.
More people are flying to more places with lower risk. At the same time, airlines and aircraft engineers are looking at ways to reduce our industry's carbon footprint and to minimize our environmental impact. We are working to build a greener, brighter future.
When I look back at the history of airplanes and at everything our industry has accomplished since that triumphant first flight at Kitty Hawk, I have to marvel at how far we’ve come in just under 120 years. I am proud that my Data and Analytics team is helping GE Aviation write the next chapter of the aeronautic adventure.