The aviation industry is the ‘last frontier’ for big data. Here’s how Honeywell is staffing up and launching new products to tackle that challenge.

Honeywell is aiming to become even more of a one-stop shop for airlines.

The company sells a wide range of consumer and industrial products, including security systems, thermostats, and wireless doorbells, among other items. Within the sprawling conglomerate is a longstanding aerospace arm that manufactures everything from plane engines and satellite-based communication systems, to docking platforms for spacecraft.

But sensing an opportunity with machine learning, Honeywell is doubling-down on their aviation offerings and staffing up for newly created roles all aimed at helping airlines ultimately fly people at a cheaper cost.

"Aviation in general feels like a last frontier in terms of being able to jump into big data," John Peterson, the director of customer support in the aerospace division, told Business Insider.

And it may be the perfect time for the expansion. Demand for airline travel is booming and spending on tech upgrades is increasing. The question for the industry now is how to cut down on fuel expenses, maintenance charges, and other operating costs amid the surge in passengers and higher IT spending.

The advanced technology can help the industry to try to pad what are typically thin margins. By knowing ahead of time which aircraft will need maintenance, for example, airlines avoid having to take a plane out-of-service. New offerings can use data on past performance issues to inform future service schedules.

Interest is robust. A recent study from information technology company SITA found that 84 percent of companies plan to have significant AI research programs in place by 2021. What's happening in aviation is an echo of the digital transformation already underway in finance, healthcare, and other industries as America's legacy companies seek to become tech firms unto themselves.

That's a key reason for Honeywell's push: it's the first time that many airlines are moving forward with digitization plans, Peterson says, a phenomenon he is well-placed to weigh in on given his 12 years at Honeywell and former life as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserves.

Read more: President Trump's trade wars, Boeing's 737 Max scandal, and rising oil prices are causing a $7.5 billion headache for airlines, industry group says

The aviation industry is 'no longer just looking at data.' Now, it's using machine learning, blockchain, and other tech to cut costs.

John Peterson is the director of customer support in Honeywell's aerospace division.
Honeywell

For airlines, an unexpected rise in out-of-service aircraft or rising fuel prices can wreck operations. Southwest, for example, was forced to cancel hundreds of flights earlier this year because of maintenance issues.

The goal for Honeywell, Peterson says, is to find ways to slowly cut away at those added costs.

One option is with predictive maintenance. The North Carolina-based company helps compile and analyze data — like when the engine button must be pressed multiple times before a plane starts — to help alert airlines when service is needed before a failure takes an aircraft unexpectedly out-of-service.

With that knowledge, airlines can plan maintenance schedules around when planes are at travel hubs that have the necessary equipment, ultimately reducing delays and cancellations, according to Peterson.

"They're no longer just looking at data, trying to guess at what they should do to make [operations] better," he said.

Honeywell also recently launched a blockchain-powered online marketplace for used aircraft parts called GoDirect Trade. Plane components must be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and it can take weeks for customers and sellers to exchange information on the part to finish the sale.

Now, using the online ledger tool, prospective purchasers can quickly obtain a full history of the product and purchase it instantly. The platform has done over $3 million in sales since its launch earlier this year, according to the company. Honeywell is aiming for $10 million in sales by the end of the year. It also has over 3,500 users and more than 1,100 registered companies.

Honeywell also offers a weather monitoring service called GoDirect Weather that helps assist crew members make route decisions, both on-the-ground and in-flight. The service can be particularly useful, Honeywell says, for those flights through regions with lax radar coverage.

The company said it has "several major airlines" using the platform but declined to discuss specific membership, citing competitive reasons.

To meet the demands of the industry, Honeywell is staffing up with data scientists, customer success managers, and other roles.

To offer such a service, Honeywell had to staff up on completely new roles, including data scientists, data security experts, and other positions.

"We're hiring a lot more and we're hiring a broader skill-set of people," says Peterson. "These are investments that are creating entirely new businesses for Honeywell and we're getting out in front of traditional players as we're doing that."

The company declined to say exactly how many positions they have hired or what their hiring goals were.

Honeywell currently has nearly 3,000 open positions globally across its divisions, including internships and senior level roles. Among the vacancies the firm is hiring for is an aerospace advanced technology specialist in Phoenix, Arizona, a position focused on supporting the development of new technologies like more sophisticated sensors that can help with predictive maintenance.

According to Peterson, a role that didn't exist five years ago is that of the customer success manager, whose charge is to manage the data networks that the advanced AI-based applications will run on. Say an airline is trying to access aircraft performance for a recent flight and the file is corrupt. The customer success manager fix the problem and format the data properly for the client.

As companies look to harness artificial intelligence and other advanced technology, it's likely they will mirror Honeywell's efforts and hiring staffers that can help manage the digital transition. Or they already are.

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