Communicating 'Planely'
Engineering prof develops system for avionics information exchange
By Ben Buursma '00

Steve VanderLeest
Calvin engineering professor Steve VAnderLeest is working on an avionics network communications system based on the language of the Internet.

Engineering professor Steve VanderLeest is working on an avionics network communications system based on the language of the Internet.

What’s scarier? The prospect of airplanes relying on a hodge-podge of network protocols communicating with each other to bring the aircraft safely in, or a single network based on the language of the Internet doing the job?

Calvin engineering professor Steve VanderLeest is charting new territory for the avionics industry, developing a system that would allow the vast communications systems in aircraft to communicate via Transport Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP).

“TCP/IP is the digital language used to share information between computers over the Internet, and what I’m doing is adjusting it for use in an aircraft,” VanderLeest said. “It’s a reliable standard and offers a guaranteed exchange of information.”

That guaranteed exchange of information is something that is currently lacking in aircraft, which have many different systems for communicating. And since planes have a much longer shelf-life than other commercial products, some have communications systems more than 20 years old — systems that are complicated to connect with one another.

“We’re used to having laptops on an ethernet connection, so it’s easy to connect them and share information, but that’s not so in an aircraft,” VanderLeest said. “Right now, there are a number of different systems, but there is a movement within the avionics industry to standardize the networking. And TCP/IP is attractive as a standard, because the technology is what we call ‘COTS’ — commercial off the shelf — so it’s a lot less costly.”

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For the last few years, VanderLeest has been working as a consultant to Smiths Aerospace, a Grand Rapids–based avionics company that specializes in electronics systems for military and commercial aircraft from manufacturers like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Airbus. VanderLeest has been looking at putting Internet protocols into aircraft communications systems.

Timothy Skutt, a software architect for Smiths Aerospace in the electronic systems division, works closely with VanderLeest and is familiar with the cutting-edge research VanderLeest is doing for the company.

“There are some emerging specifications in the airline domain that Steve is looking at and seeing how the technology that we currently have maps into that,” Skutt said. “He’s also been taking a look at detailed network architecture–type stuff and how all of the pieces fit together, including performance issues and safety and security requirements that a lot of your typical network stuff doesn’t have.

“I think where Steve has helped us out a lot is in his understanding of a lot of the other protocols that we typically haven’t needed in the aircraft environment because our networks, so far, have been pretty constrained. But as we add more technology and more computing capabilities into the aircraft, the aircraft starts looking a lot more like typical networks. His expertise in a lot of different networking technologies that come from telecommunications, automotive and other parts of the industry helped us expand our capabilities.”

"People don't need to worry when they hear the words Internet and airplane mentioned in the same sentence." — Steve VanderLeest

VanderLeest said the technology he’s working on will be more reliable than current methods — and cheaper. He was quick to add, however, that despite the terminology, there will be some critical differences in the technology currently used to communicate on the Internet and the technology slated to become a standard part of new planes.

“Right now,” he said, “avionics are incredibly expensive and complicated. The airplane manufacturers — people like Boeing — are looking to cut costs and simplify. They’re responding to the marching orders of commercial airlines, but also responding to what they’re hearing from the military.”

VanderLeest said it’s important to remember, too, that the communication network for the flight management and navigation equipment is isolated, so that while the protocol is the same as the Internet, dangers such as viruses and spam cannot occur on the network of the airplane.

“That’s why,” he said, “people don’t need to worry when they hear the words Internet and airplane mentioned in the same sentence.”

A Calvin graduate who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois, VanderLeest began working with Smiths as part of a sabbatical project and has continued to work with the company during summers. As an electrical and computer engineer, he said his current work is paying dividends for both him and his students.

“I see problems [at Smiths] that I wouldn’t necessarily anticipate if I were only looking at issues theoretically,” he said. “I also see in the workplace the dependencies and interactions between different issues and problems and how things impact and rely on each other. That’s actually kind of a nice reminder of what we’re trying to do at Calvin with a liberal arts education — where we’re teaching students about dependencies and interactions in different disciplines.”

And, says VanderLeest, there is one final benefit. “Students,” he said, “pay a little closer attention when I use examples from my work. A major company is employing me for my expertise. That gives me some credibility. Maybe even more than a Ph.D. does.”

Not that his experience in academia doesn’t pay off, too. VanderLeest is one of many at Smiths who are involved in the engineering, designing and laboratory research in the avionics field. But what sets VanderLeest apart, said Skutt, is the fact that he’s a professor and is exposed to many areas of the field.

"The application of what Steve's been up to ... will actually be flying in aircraft within a few years." — Timothy Skutt, Smiths Aerospace

“Being a professor, Steve probably has more exposure to a number of different areas in network technology than a lot of people that come from the avionics domain would have,” Skutt said. “So through that exposure, and even through some of the stuff he’s gone through with senior [engineering student] projects, he’s been able to help us see what’s going on in other parts of the industry and how we can leverage that technology in our systems.”

VanderLeest said the bulk of his work on the TCP/IP network software is done, and even though it’s just a portion of the entire project, it won’t be too long before we actually see his work in commercial aircraft.

“The application of what Steve’s been up to is actually being implemented today,” Skutt said. “That will actually be flying in aircraft within a few years. The Boeings of the world will be getting that technology within months and begin to work it into their systems.”