Boeing 787s to create half a terabyte of data per flight, says Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic is preparing for a significant increase in data as it embraces the internet of things, with a new fleet of highly connected planes each expected to create over half a terabyte of data per flight.

Speaking to Computerworld UK at the Economist Technology Frontiers event, Virgin Atlantic IT director David Bulman said that the airline company is expecting an “explosion” of information generated from a growing number of sources, from employees and customers to cargo containers and planes.

In particular, the introduction of Boeing 787 aircraft – ordered by Virgin Atlantic for delivery in 2014 – is expected to dramatically increase the volume of data the airline will need to deal with.

“The internet of things, in a broad sense, is where we are starting to see everything from planes to cargo devices getting connected,” Bulman said. "The latest planes we are getting, the Boeing 787s, are incredibly connected. Literally every piece of that plane has an internet connection, from the engines, to the flaps, to the landing gear.

He continued: "If there is a problem with one of the engines we will know before it lands to make sure that we have the parts there. It is getting to the point where each different part of the plane is telling us what it is doing as the flight is going on.”

This level of operational insight will involve generating large amounts of data from each 787 aircraft, he explained. “We can get upwards of half a terabyte of data from a single flight from all of the different devices which are internet connected," Bulman said.

The airline is also seeing the internet of things impact on other areas of its business since Bulman took on the IT director role a year ago, with a BYOD scheme also generating masses of data.

Meanwhile, customer-facing initiatives mean passengers can be tracked throughout their journey, with the use of RFID tags embedded in mobile devices.

“There are a whole range of things that are going on in the airline industry,” Bulman explained. “One that is potentially the most interesting - and the Scandinavians are ahead of this - is loading passport information onto devices. We are not taking part in this at the moment because the UK is not yet there, but there are airports such as in Copenhagen where you can get onto a plane without talking to a single person.”

With RFID tags to track cargo and, in the future, baggage, large demands are being placed on the airline’s IT infrastructure. According to Bulman a scalable cloud solutions will be required to deal with the increase in data, which the company has seen double in the past two years, a rate that is likely to quicken in the future.

"The challenge is what do you do with that amount of data when you are getting terabytes of data a day off your various airplanes? We are getting to the stage right now where we cannot deal with that much.”

He added: “If you are talking that level of data you can't just chuck ten disks into your data centre anymore, you have to look at cloud based solutions and how you can store data."

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