Data and Aerospace: the perfect match not new at all

Milky Way Nasa Big Data

Data are present nowadays in almost every aspect of our daily lives. Bringing the professional one into focus, there is no business or industry which had suffered no impact of this macrotrend in recent times.

Nevertheless, this interest in data insights and its exploitation is nothing new for some industries and businesses among which is included, for sure, the Aerospace one. Actually, data have always represented a crucial factor in every stage of Aerospace history.

The present article goes through the Aerospace history stopping over the main events and bringing into focus the data role in each of them:

Data: a crucial factor along aerospace history.

Aerospace and history enthusiasts would probably agree that the first serious step in aeronautics can be considered the first flight of a manned aerostat, in other words, an aerostatic or hot-air balloon carrying human passengers from one point to another in a controlled way. This event was held in Paris the 21st November 1783, where Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes made the first manned flight in a balloon designed by the French Montgolfier brothers.

hot air balloon Pilâtre de Rozier Arlandes Montgolfier first flight
The first untethered balloon flight by Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes, on 21 November 1783 – Illustration from the late 19th Century.

This fact, joint to other factors as the use of hydrogen as balloons filling extended and firmly established the aerostatic flights around the world, having its summit with the Zeppelin during the XIX and the first half of XX centuries. Even today there are a lot of aerostatic flights: manned mainly focused on recreation, and unmanned oriented mainly to science and research.

All of the aerostatic flights in history have something in common, reliable data were and are nowadays a must to carry them out in a safe way. Meteorological status along the flight path must be precisely monitored to guarantee its integrity due to their extreme subordination to weather factors such as wind shears, thermals, pressure gradients, and so on.

Zeppelin New York Manhattan Naval
USS Macon (ZRS-5) flying over New York Harbor in 1933. The southern end of Manhattan Island is visible in the lower left center. – U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

The 17th December 1903 took place the first step in aviation: Wright brothers made the first sustained and controlled flight in a powered aircraft built by them. Since then, the aviation continued its unstoppable development being even more boosted by the WWI  and the WWII (First and Second World Wars), in which became a decisive element for both: tactics and strategy.

Wright First Flight aviation logbook
Wilbur Wright’s logbook showing diagram and data for first circle flight on 20 September 1904. – Wright brothers.

During these conflicts, data and information were major issues able to determine the winning and losing side in every single battle and even in the whole war. A primary role was played by aviation in this regard: conducting aerial reconnaissance by overflying enemy positions to acquire information  (data donor), and striking and bombing enemy aircraft and strategic targets designated by the operation’s commanders (information receiver).

bombing map WWII Nottingham
Map showing the locations of bombing in Nottingham during the Second World War (WWII). – Nottingham Evening Post (17 May 1945).

Commercial aviation made its progress in parallel, and airlines became along its path in one of the most data-driven businesses, if not the most. This is explained by its highly demanding safety requirements – ‘Safety first’: motto always linked to them along their whole history – and due to their extremely complex business environment.

Airlines performance depends on uncountable factors which are in some cases really hard to predict and usually out of their influential area. Some of the categories, not all of them, are listed below and linked to a real example to illustrate this point:

Data and Aerospace
London-Sydney flight paths over the past 10 years (highlighted in green the recommended flight path in 2007 being 8997nm long). The goal is to optimise flight paths by computing and comparing parameters (wind speed and direction, FIRs, refueling spots, war zones, etc.) and their impact. – Airbus Airline Sciences.

What is more than certain is that, as in any kind of business, its first goal is to make money. No matter how complex the approach is: aircraft for airlines are, in the first instance, money-making machines.

Airplanes would have been nothing without airfields where take-off and land and, in the same way, airlines would be nothing without airports. They constitute cornerstone elements acting as grounded bases in which embark and disembark passengers and freight.  Over the years they have become in the most complex logistic centers ever built by the human being. Whichever task performed in there is based on real-time data and information, and the estimations and forecasts made out of them.

Airport Numbers Lithuanian Passenger Flight
Passenger and flight numbers at Lithuanian Airports during the first quarter of 2018. –

As the airlines’ presence exponentially grew around the world, a new discipline arose in consequence to ease the proper use of the airspace and to guarantee the flight safety: the Air Traffic Management (ATM).  It is indisputable that real-time data management and analysis are mandatory in order to monitor and guide each aircraft on-ground and in-flight.

Air Traffic Control Management Radar Tower
A computer monitor in the radar approach control section of the air traffic control tower at Yokota Air Base, Japan – U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Michael Washburn / Released.

Space Exploration began based on the well known V-2 ballistic missiles developed by Nazi Germany during WWII.  The United States and the USSR take this knowledge after the War to develop their missile and launcher programmes during the Cold War. Since the beginning, it has been supported by high calculus accuracy based on space events observation, so data are always involved in any step made in this field.

DARPA Data OrbitOutlook O2 network space situational awareness SSA
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) OrbitOutlook (O2) network for space situational awareness (SSA). The program seeks to provide a way to quickly acquire and process large amounts of high-quality data from diverse nontraditional sources. – DARPA. Click on the picture to know more.

And now and in the future?

It is undeniable that the Aerospace Industry has not remained indifferent to the huge Data wave that recently happened. If you want to know more about the most outstanding current projects in this regard keep on reading this article.