The FAA has been piloting iPads since January 2011, and currently has about 1,100 employees using the tablet devices. The pilot has led to the development of numerous mobile applications at the agency, including an app for aviation mechanics to order parts and view technical manuals, an app for lawyers to access legal files, and a training app called QuickLook that's now available on iTunes.
The agency has taken a decidedly open approach to the pilot thus far, allowing anyone who could give the FAA a good business case the chance to use an iPad, and anyone with a good idea to develop apps to use the devices however they wish.
[ The FAA wants commercial in-flight restrictions eased on tablets and other devices. See Electronic Devices, Takeoff Might Get Along: FAA. ]
"You tell us why you want this device, and we'll let you do it in a way that doesn't threaten FAA networks," said Rob Corcoran, manager of the FAA's architecture and applied technology group. "One of the critical success factors has been not limiting the scope of what people are trying to do. You have no idea where that killer app in mobility will come from."
The business cases he gets are often related to how employees can work more efficiently and effectively in a mobile environment. For example, aviation mechanics now use the iPad to order parts, track documents, and view technical manuals. Previously, a group of mechanics might have only one computer, and mechanics would have to wait in a queue before doing data entry. Corcoran says that iPads have led to a "substantial cost benefit in hours saved" on this front.
Lawyers who are responsible for prosecuting airspace violations, meanwhile, now have an iPad app that allows them to collect and view files on their devices that show replays of FAA radar at the time a flight path deviation occurred. These lawyers now go into settlement meetings with alleged violators and replay the events as the FAA saw them in order to represent what information the FAA has to prosecute the case. According to Corcoran, lawyers are now saving $100,000 per case because the radar data has resulted in a greater number of early settlements.
The iPad also holds promise for FAA trainers, said Cliff Travis, manager of the FAA's training team. "I think a day will come where a student will come in and get a device instead of a stack of books and will carry that device until they are certified," he says.
The FAA is in the process of creating an application marketplace, although it won't be exclusively for mobile apps. Desktop apps also will be available through the FAA's application store.
Benefits have not just come from new apps, according to Corcoran, but from savings on the technology itself as well. For example, the FAA is saving money thanks to cheap unlimited data agreements available for tablets; cheaper costs and higher durability of tablets compared to laptops; and from not having to spend on Blackberry servers.
The success of the iPad pilot is being parlayed into other mobile pilots, according to Corcoran. The FAA is looking into both Android devices and RIM's new Playbook 2 tablet.
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