The A400M as a Digital Aircraft: Crafting a 21st Century Baseline


2016-11-22 By Robbin Laird

After my visit to the Albacete Air Base in Spain, I spent time in Madrid with Airbus Defence and Space.

During my time in Madrid, I was able to conduct two interviews, the first with the head of the tanker program, namely, Antonio Caramazana, and the second with Fernando Alonso, head of Military Aircraft and with the chief engineer of the A-400M, Lionel Rouby.

The A400M has been delivered to several air forces and will become a key part of their fleets for operations over the next 50 years.

Currently, the program is working through engine modifications, which has fixed a known problem with the gear boxes.

During a visit to the Bricy air base, the squadron leadership provided insights with regard to the French approach to the A400M and the squadron leader highlighted the importance in his view of the inherent upgradeability of the aircraft associated with its software systems as well as the promise of digital maintenance for shaping a new approach to fleet management.

In that interview, Lt. Col. Paillard highlighted the importance of keeping the aircraft common among the A400M users to get the maximum impact from the aircraft operating as a fleet.

“We do not want to end up like the Transall which was a common French and German aircraft but at the end became completely different aircraft.”

A key potential for leveraging commonality is derived from the digital nature of the aircraft.

The sensors onboard the aircraft and the various software upgradeable systems provide an inherent potential for the A400M to provide for inherent upgradeability and serviceability across the fleet.

Lt Col. Paillard seen in an A400M cockpit at Bricy. Credit: Second Line of Defense
Lt Col. Paillard seen in an A400M cockpit at Bricy. Credit: Second Line of Defense

Put in other terms, the digital nature of the aircraft is part of every A400M which enters the combat fleet and can provide a significant advantage over legacy aircraft. In that sense, the A400M is part of the strategic transition associated with other software upgradeable aircraft like the Wedgetail, the P-8, the Triton and the F-35.

My discussion with Fernando Alonso and Lionel Rouby focused on the sensors and software upgradeability of the aircraft built in and the potential impact of leveraging this inherent or built-in capability.

As Alonso put it: “Every A400M may look the same outside, but as the software evolves, new capabilities are generated for the aircraft.”


Question: How would you describe the software upgradeable quality of the A400M and field upgradeable capabilities associated with that upgradeability?

Lionel Rouby: The systems architecture of the aircraft, there are about 5,000 equipment (gathered in more than 200 systems/subsystems) onboard the aircraft and their around 130 of them – key ones – which are software upgradeable and could be uploaded by customers themselves.

You can upload software changes in the field. This makes the system quite flexible for upgrades.

The system is called the DLCS or data load control system, which manages the 130 systems for software upgrades featuring field loadable systems.

Fernando Alonso: For example, with the flight control systems we have software capabilities, which can be modified.

We are upgrading the flight control system to manage load shifts onboard the aircraft is dropping loads.

The center of gravity obviously changes as you drop loads during an operation.

By upgrading the software, although the airplane is physically the same, it now has a new capability associated with the upgrade.

The A400M at the Farnbourgh Airshow 2016. Credit: Airbus Defence and Space
The A400M at the Farnbourgh Airshow 2016. Credit: Airbus Defence and Space

And this capability is field loadable.

Lionel Rouby: Key computers onboard the aircraft operate this way, such as the flight management system, the mission management system, the load master work station, the flight warning system, the flight control system or the flight display system.

Obviously, the upgrades is not done in a few minutes but you can do this in a few hours as you ensure that the upgrade to the system has been properly installed and operating.

Question: This is very different from legacy aircraft.

This gives you a 50-year growth cycle and as you build up operational experience, which can shape as well the software changes, desired by customers.

Keeping the aircraft common allows the software upgradeable quality to give customers significant growth in capabilities over time.

But also the digital quality of the aircraft provides significant change in how maintenance can be done as well.

Could you describe this advantage?

Fernando Alonso: Onboard the aircraft are sensors which can provide real time data on the performance of the aircraft and this data can clearly provide key information to shape both an understanding of its operation but provide data for more effective maintenance.

Lionel Rouby: The sensors are there, but the system to exploit the data generated by the sensors is a work in progress.

We can shape a lifetime maintenance system.

We can process on the ground by the maintenance system which can process this data which can shape a customized maintenance system.

You can maintain the aircraft based on real need rather than having predetermined maintenance points.

When a set of conditions has been met, then the maintenance can be performed.

In effect, demand side maintenance can be provided rather than milestone maintenance.

We need to develop the algorithms which can translate the sensor driven data to shape the new maintenance regime which the aircraft can clearly deliver to our customers.

Fernando Alonso: From the standpoint of the airplane the data is there; shaping the systems to exploit the data is a work in progress but is inherent in the technology onboard the aircraft.

Question: This provides you with the opportunity to provide services to the customer to support the digital management process.

 Could you describe these possibilities?

Lionel Rouby: We are opening the door to two new kinds of services to support the A400M.

The first is software maintenance whereby we provide for software upgrades to our customers.

The second is a customized solution by national customers based on mission driven operations.

Fernando Alonso: With the data coming from the aircraft, you can drive down to specific aircraft tails.

This allows customers to shape fleet management options, such as used in the commercial sector.

You can determine the correlation between the actual state of a particular aircraft against missions to determine how best to use the aircraft with its current operational state.

You can target the particular aircraft in its current operational state against lift, tanking, or Special Forces missions for a particular case.

And with the generation of data in flight, it is possible to deliver the data of the aircraft in flight to the ground to prepare the maintenance team PRIOR to the aircraft landing what maintenance needs to be done to get that aircraft back in flight more rapidly.

You can then generate better sortie generation rates by managing the data effectively.

In short, the digital nature of the aircraft provides for inherent upgradeability of the aircraft and new approach to modernization.

And the data generated by the sensors provides the basis for big data management for more effective and realistic maintenance approaches.

A400M Flight Demo at Farnbourgh Air Show 2016 from on Vimeo.

For some earlier pieces on the A400M, see the following: