The R&D Tax Credit Aspects of Avionics

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        Throughout the history of modern avionics, innovation has played a fundamental role in enabling safer, more efficient aircraft. Today, the avionics industry must face major challenges, including an unprecedented demand for consumer flying, increasingly restrictive airspaces, as well as the need for highly effective tactical systems. This article will explore recent developments in aviation electronics and present the R&D tax credit opportunity available for companies engaged in taking avionics technology to new heights.

The Research & Development Tax Credit

        Enacted in 1981, the federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit of up to 13% of eligible spending for new and improved products and processes. Qualified research must meet the following four criteria:

  • New or improved products, processes, or software
  • Technological in nature
  • Elimination of uncertainty
  • Process of experimentation

        Eligible costs include employee wages, cost of supplies, cost of testing, contract research expenses, and costs associated with developing a patent.  On December 18, 2015, President Obama signed the bill making the R&D Tax Credit permanent. Beginning in 2016, the R&D credit can be used to offset Alternative Minimum tax and startup businesses can utilize the credit against $250,000 per year in payroll taxes.

All Eyes on Avionics

        Electronic systems used on aircraft, satellites, and spacecraft are generally referred to as avionics. Often consisting of highly complex solutions, such systems enable a variety of functionalities, from communications and navigation, to black boxes and collision-avoidance mechanisms.

        Responsible for what could be considered the “brains” of aerospace vehicles, the avionics industry is experiencing significant growth and thus attracting a great number of new and traditional players. At times, avionics systems and their servicing agreements can be more profitable than the original aircraft sale itself, as technological improvements and their ensuing upgrades generate long-term aftermarket revenue.

        In September 2017, United Technologies Corp. announced the $30 billion takeover of Rockwell Collins, a leader in avionics and high-integrity technology. This happened just a few months after Rockwell Collins acquired Wellington, Florida-based B/E Aerospace, manufacturer of aircraft cabin interior products and services. The megadeal has been seen as part of a trend within the aerospace industry, wherein equipment manufacturers try to reduce costs and control more of their supply chains by entering the quest for digitally enhanced aircraft.

        Another recent example is American multinational Boeing Co., which announced the creation of an avionics group to design and manufacture aircraft controls and electronics. The unit will compete with Boeing’s current suppliers, developing systems for military, civil, and space vehicles. The plane maker’s initiative is seen as an effort to reduce costs, increase value for customers, and guarantee revenue from services. Boeing’s research priorities going forward are expected to include autonomous taxi and flight control technology, machine learning, and high-integrity systems.  

Growth Opportunities for the Avionics Industry
        Faced with an all-time high in consumer flying, countries around the globe strive to implement safer and more efficient airspace systems while airlines try to maximize returns by reducing aircraft downtime.  The avionics industry has a prominent role to play in this new era of air travel, enabling access to real-time data that can enhance flight operations and improve decision-making. According to a recently published report by Frost & Sullivan, the commercial avionics market was worth $12.74 billion in 2016 and should reach $16.65 billion by 2030. An expected delivery of over 38 thousand commercial and business aircraft over this period represents significant growth opportunities for avionics suppliers, as does the modernization of legacy fleets. Major drivers of growth include a shift towards the Internet of Things, the implementation of avionics systems for next-generation aircraft and new regulatory requirements, along with a growing demand for integrated modular avionics.

        Military avionics is also a promising area, as electronic systems play an increasingly crucial role in combat operations, through advanced communication, navigation, and surveillance functionalities. The use of military unmanned aerial vehicles and the replacement of old analog systems are major opportunities.  According to a recent study by Orbis Research, the global military and defense avionic systems market will experience an 8.92 percent compound annual growth rate through 2020.  

Hallmarks of Modern Avionics

        Modern avionics systems aim to provide a combination of technology, features, and capabilities that enhance the flight experience. Innovative compute-intensive, high-speed, and high-bandwidth solutions allow for longer, safer, and more efficient flights in any airspace or weather condition. The following paragraphs present some of the hallmarks of modern avionics:

        I. Integration and Versatility: Modern cockpit environments integrate a variety of aircraft systems, giving access to a wealth of information, including real-time sensor, navigation, and terrain data. Integration is accompanied by versatility - modern avionics systems are easily adaptable, allowing for the incorporation of new functionalities. This is especially true for the addition of avionics applications that are tailored to specific needs, such as traffic surveillance and communication between pilots, passengers, and crews.

        II. Advanced Navigation and Situational Awareness: Synthetic vision systems and advanced mapping functionalities increase situational awareness and safety regardless of outside visibility. Interactive moving maps with 2D and 3D versions along with synthetic vision solutions that provide an intuitive depiction of key flight information reduce pilots’ workload by simplifying instrument flying and eliminating poor visibility as a safety factor. Using GPS and inertial reference systems as well as information from various databases, such as geographical, hydrological, and terrain data, these advanced systems can revolutionize navigation.

        III. Flight Planning and Communication: According to new regulation, aircraft must be equipped with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) to fly most controlled airspace starting January 1, 2020. This satellite-based surveillance technology enables real-time precision, shared situational awareness, and an array of advanced applications for both pilots and controllers. ADS-B services for traffic control, weather, and flight information can yield great improvements in aviation safety and efficiency.

        IV. Advanced User Interface and Cutting-edge Displays: Display functionality and configuration can greatly impact the pilot’s workload. Innovative avionics systems offer user-friendly, multi-function, customizable displays that facilitate access to information. High-definition, touchscreen, and scalable window views are just a few examples of recent trends in cockpit systems.

        Pervading each one of these hallmarks, there are new technologies that promise to change the face of avionics. The Internet of Things (IoT), augmented reality, and new software development tools are important examples of groundbreaking trends in the aerospace industry. The following sections present the most recent developments in these areas.

The Internet of Aircraft Things
        The expanding IoT has allowed for virtual-world capabilities to meet real world needs. It has created major innovation opportunities in variety of industries, avionics being no exception.  Fleet modernization has given access to massive amounts of data that can revolutionize aircraft maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO). Equipment manufacturers, engine makers, sensor suppliers, and software firms are joining forces to harness cloud computing, IoT, and data analytics capabilities in the development of an interconnected approach to aircraft monitoring.

        Smart sensors play a crucial role in enabling intelligent aircraft health monitoring systems (AHMS). Equipped with advanced storage and internal processing capabilities, these sensors help detect potential faults as soon as they appear. Custom algorithms and application programmable interfaces further optimize operations. Common challenges when it comes to sensing data input include improved accuracy, speed, and responsiveness of the systems to rapidly changing stimuli.

        According to Aviation Today, while the number of faults that could be detected in a Boeing 767 in the 1980s was 9,000, intelligent sensors can now detect 45,000 faults in the same aircraft. Next-generation AHMS track and process information regarding temperatures, pressures, multiple types of low-end and high-end rotor speeds and vibration, along with several equipment-generated reports. Developing new and improved ways to acquire, transfer, and transform this data into actionable information is a major challenge and a particularly promising area for innovation within the avionics industry.

        The AHMS market is expected to be worth $4.7 billion by 2021, as big data becomes the basis for condition-based and predictive maintenance.   By transforming raw data into actionable information, next-generation MRO systems could contribute to preventing cancelations, improving safety, reducing fuel consumption, and enhancing overall passenger and crew experience.

        The identification of relevant patterns and detection of early signs of potential problems can enable airlines to act preventively and avoid costly downtime. Also, IoT-enabled systems open the way for a “prescriptive” approach to MRO. In other words, operators can not only detect the possibility of failure but also receive information on the best way to tackle the necessary maintenance tasks. Innovative, analytical systems are incorporating “what-if” functions that assess how different scenarios could affect operations and prescribe maintenance activities that optimize reliability and asset uptime. Information provided may include the optimal time to execute repairs, the best sequence of tasks to perform, etc.

        A growing number of original equipment manufacturers (OEM) and avionics software companies are incorporating IoT capabilities into their products, particularly for aircraft health monitoring and efficiency-enhancing applications. The following paragraphs present innovative efforts in this domain:

        Airbus and Palantir: European multinational corporation Airbus has recently worked with Palo Alto, California-based Palantir Technologies in the development of a secure, cloud-based platform designed to work as a single access point to data from a variety of sources, including work orders, spares consumption, components data, fleet configuration, and on-board sensor data. Skywise is a customizable, health-monitoring platform that allows force’s easy visualization and analysis of large-scale data that has traditionally been hosted in isolated servers. The centralization of operational reports, technical documentation, and real-time sensor data in a single API allows for more efficient flight-ops analytics, predictive maintenance, and troubleshooting. Early adopters include Emirates, which already experienced 1 percent increase in operational reliability, and EasyJet, which deployed a customized solution focusing on predictive action towards its top 100 operational issues.  Skywise applications enable quick reporting of key metrics, flight path visualization, and component reliability tests, among various other functionalities. Future features will include an idle factor optimization tool that prevents the overuse of fuel on descent and approach.  

        Honeywell Aerospace: Headquartered in Morris Plains, New Jersey, Honeywell is a leading supplier of sensors, propulsion engines, cockpit and cabin electronics, wireless connectivity services, and logistics for the aerospace industry. In August 2017, the software-industrial company announced a new line of self-diagnosing, proximity sensors designed to improve the performance of aircraft systems and reduce unnecessary costs related to false readings. The Integral Health Monitoring series detects when a sensor has been damaged or is malfunctioning in any way. It can be integrated into various aircraft systems, including flight controls, evacuation locks, and landing gear. Honeywell has also recently introduced the Linear Variable Differential Transformers for continuous position monitoring in harsh environments. The new sensors can be integrated into engine mechanisms, pilot controls, and nose-wheel steering applications.
        Pratt & Whitney: Headquartered in East Hartford, Connecticut, Pratt & Whitney has demonstrated the value of incorporating advanced sensing capabilities into aerospace equipment. The Geared Turbo Fan engine is equipped with 5,000 sensors that generate up to 10 GB of data per second. This massive amount of information is used to identify patterns of demand and adjust the engine’s thrust levels. As a result, there have been considerable reductions in fuel consumption as well as performance improvements in engine noise and emissions.  P&W has developed a major aftermarket digitalization initiative aimed at providing predictive analytics and tools for customer support. The EngineWise uses the company’s eFAST aircraft health monitoring system to enable worldwide, real-time communication with customers.

        Rolls-Royce and Microsoft:  Among the world’s largest aircraft engine makers, British multinational Rolls-Royce has partnered with Microsoft to improve its data collection methods. The company’s health monitoring system oversees more than 13,000 engines in service at approximately 9,000 commercial flights per day. It uses Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform and Azure IoT to collect and aggregate data and the Cortana Intelligence Suite to transform it into actionable information.  The partnership aims to create an intelligent engine that optimizes fuel efficiency, minimizes risks, and improves maintenance. This is made possible by unprecedented connectivity that allows for continuous interaction with a support ecosystem, that includes information on weather conditions, airport infrastructure, taxiing and turnaround times, etc.

        Gulfstream, General Electric, and AT&T: GE Aviation has recently announced a partnership with AT&T IoT solutions to connect the on-board and off-board portions of PlaneConnectHTM, the AHMS on Gulfstream business jets. AT&T ensures that aircraft can wirelessly and securely send data from all seven continents to Gulfstream Technical Operations. This enhanced connectivity enables speedier diagnostics, fleet-wide comparisons and trending, and transient issue visibility, among many other benefits.

        Avionica: Miami, Florida-based Avionica offers ruggedized service units that interface with all major OEM flight data recorders, providing data download and real-time, engineering unit data monitoring. With over 3 thousand hours of data capacity, Avionica’s miniQAR is among the world’s smallest and most powerful Quick-Access Recorders. In addition to supporting different types of data and distinct communication protocols, the miniQAR can be easily integrated into the aircraft without the need for tools or modifications. Aiming to eliminate the cost and delay often associated with data transferring, Avionica also offers the lea secureLINK, which enables wireless, encrypted communication, and the satLINK MAX, which provides up to four channels of satellite-based voice and data communication. Founded in 1992, this innovative company has worked with various airlines, including Icelander, Kallita Air, Air Greenland, and Cathay Pacific.

Augmented Reality
        The exponential growth in commercial aviation has been accompanied by ever more complex aircraft, capable of flying more routes and greater distances. The ongoing expansion in global air passenger numbers has led to a surge in demand not only for equipment but also for skilled workforce that can ensure the maintenance and repair of growing fleets. According to Airbus, over 33 thousand new aircraft will be needed globally by 2035. However, the supply of qualified engineers is unlikely to keep pace.  

        Augmented reality stands out as promising way to bridge this gap between a growing fleet and a limited pool of skilled workers. Advanced technology can provide on-demand expertise, allowing technicians to give remote guidance to onsite operators anywhere in the globe. Wearable augmented reality systems enable a new form of immersive communication, which could considerably increase maintenance efficiency and promote major cost savings.

        Provider of software solutions for companies in the aviation and defense industries, Itasca, Illinois-based IFS has partnered with Swedish XMReality to develop a remote guidance system for telepresence and data transmission. Their aim is to integrate augmented reality into the field, allowing support technicians at base to watch, show, and guide maintenance processes through augmented hands and tools. Key challenges include preserving spatial awareness, which is a fundamental aspect of maintenance in tight spaces, and ensuring that the necessary evidence is gathered for compliance reasons.

        This kind of technology is particularly interesting for the defense sector, as it enables real-time delivery of expertise in even the most remote locations. Civil aviation is also expected to take advantage of this kind of system, particularly in high-demand areas that lack qualified workers, such as the Middle East and Asia-Pacific regions. Both the military and civil segments can also benefit from new and improved training capabilities, particularly with flight simulations.  

        In addition to maintenance applications and training, augmented reality can optimize operations and enhance situational awareness. For instance, Forth Worth, Texas-based Bell Helicopter aims to take augmented reality technology to helicopter operations. In recent years, helicopters have undergone radical changes to remain up-to-date with safety regulations, longevity, quality improvements, and advanced military applications.  In this context, the company recently unveiled the FCX-001, a concept helicopter equipped with a virtual cockpit that will allow pilots to “control the aircraft with the aid of augmented reality and an artificial intelligence computer assistance system (…) in the role of safety and mission officer, while the computer assistance system flies with them.”

        San Diego, California-based Aero Glass is also a pioneer in bringing augmented reality to the world of avionics. Founded in 2014, the company has created an application to display safety and navigation information in 360 degrees 3D augmented reality through smart glasses. It takes the pilot’s eyes off of the traditional avionics displays and takes them outside the cockpit, where relevant information can be seen in an organic manner. Aero Glass’s head-worn display project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program.  

        A similar concept can easily make its way to general aviation, with solutions such as the innovative FlyQ Insight App. Created by aviation software firm Seattle Avionics, which is located in Woodinville, WA, the application allows pilots to see approximate airport positions by pointing their iPhone or iPad cameras out the windscreen. The app’s patent-pending algorithms merge geographic data with live video feeds to provide direction and distance information on nearby airports. It is the first affordable augmented reality system for the general aviation market.

Avionics Software Development
        Avionics software is yet another key element for aircraft safety and efficiency both in commercial and military segments. Innovative tools for avionics software development promise to dramatically reduce the costs and time involved in creating and testing new applications.

        Performance Software Corp.: Specialized in real-time embedded avionics systems and full-lifecycle software solutions, Phoenix, Arizona-based Performance has developed an innovative way to develop and test avionics software. The company’s JETS Virtual platform creates direct replicas of target hardware, allowing software developers to work with virtualized versions of the systems they are designing for. This custom interaction reduces the time necessary to test and certify software applications.

        ENSCO Avionics: For over 30 years ENSCO has developed sophisticated airborne systems for the aerospace industry. The Endicott, New York-based company focuses on safety and mission-critical software as well as programmable hardware engineering solutions. ENSCO’s iData Tool suite is an innovative solution for software display development. The commercial-off-the-shelf, human machine interface toolkit facilitates the creation and deployment of embedded display applications that work across platforms (including cockpit displays, situational awareness, simulation, command and control, etc). Their objective is to go beyond final display development, by enabling a collaborative path towards the optimal design, from concept to prototyping, development, and training. The data-driven solution offers advanced features, including seamless integration for 2D and 3D digital moving maps and 3D views.

        Core Avionics & Industrial Inc.: Based in Tampa, Florida, CoreAVI offers products and services designed to enable complex graphics processors for safety-critical and high-reliability systems. In addition to providing high-level safety certification, CoreAVI graphics are aligned with Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE) standards. Established in 2010, the Open Group FACE Consortium aims to create uniform, open standards to avionics systems, designed to increase affordability, support interoperability, and foster innovation.  CoreAVI’s ongoing product development initiatives aim to promote the reuse of technology by advancing modular and interoperable open architecture.

Fleet Modernization Efforts

        In addition to being up to date with the technological trends presented so far, the ability to integrate modern avionics systems into legacy aircraft also stands out as a vital skill for competitive avionics companies. There is growing demand for innovative solutions that can extend the lifespan of aircraft and guarantee long-term efficiency, while ensuring compliance with new regulations.

        Over the next decade, two major programs aimed at transforming airspace and air traffic management are set for completion. In Europe, the Single European Sky Initiative will coordinate the design, management, and regulation of airspace. The SES 2+ legislative package will incorporate new technology, regulations, and air traffic management techniques to enable standardized and efficient air travel throughout Europe. Similarly, in the U.S., FAA’s NextGen aims to implement a new national airspace system until 2025. In addition to the migration to a satellite-based air traffic control system, the program will provide technological support for performance-based navigation and introduce a new, digital communication system between controllers and pilots.  

        Ongoing modernization programs illustrate the role of avionics in making room for legacy aircraft in the future of aviation. For instance, United Parcel Service has recently launched the A300 cockpit modernization program, an effort to upgrade the embedded computing architecture of its 52 Airbus A300 freighters. Working in partnership with Airbus and Honeywell, UPS will add an advanced flight management system, a new integrated standby instrument system, a central maintenance system, and new liquid crystal displays in place of the current cathode ray tube cockpit displays. The new avionics package will be based on the Honeywell Primus Epic suite and will include a satellite-based augmentation system-capable GPS, as well as the ability to fly LPV and RNP AR routes. Different from the current system, which uses individual components for aircraft functions, the new configuration will have processor cards installed in a cabinet, which allow for greater flexibility when incorporating new functionalities.  

        Another interesting example is Lockheed Martin’s C-5 modernization program. Capable of carrying more cargo and traveling farther distances than any other aircraft, the C-5 Galaxy is Air Force’s largest and only strategic airlifter. First introduced in the late sixties, however, the C-5 required significant modernization in order to preserve its relevance and extend its service life well into de 21st century. The new C-5M is the result of a comprehensive program in which avionics played a major role. Upgrades included a new, modern cockpit with a digital, all-weather flight control system and autopilot; a new communications suite; flat-panel displays; and enhanced navigation and safety equipment. In addition to serving as the digital backbone of other reliability and re-engining efforts, avionics enhancements, such as the integrated datalink capabilities, predictive flight performance cues and situational awareness displays, also greatly ease crew workload and improve overall situational awareness.  


        Avionics have a major role to play in the modern aerospace industry. New technologies, including the Internet of Things, augmented reality, and advanced software development tools can revolutionize the way aircraft are operated, generating significant safety and efficiency gains. Avionics companies have considerable growth opportunities at hand, both in the commercial and military sectors, particularly as new regulations call for comprehensive fleet modernization efforts. R&D tax credits are available to support innovative companies determined to lead the way into the future of aviation.

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