FAA says iPad pilot program is paying off

The Federal Aviation Administration is testing tablet computers in a pilot program that has equipped a variety of personnel, from mechanics to lawyers and pilots, with iPads to study how the devices can improve efficiency and save money.

Details about the program were discussed at the FOSE conference and exposition in Washington, D.C., on April 3 by Robert Corcoran, manager of the FAA’s Architecture and Applied Technology Group.

The pilot has 1,100 iPads issued to personnel across the agency. People can use the devices to read and send documents and e-mail, but they cannot directly access FAA networks. It is now in a “pre-production” phase, moving toward a full production/deployment phase sometime in 2014, he said.

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Once the production phase is launched, workers will have a choice to replace their laptops with iPads, Corcoran said. The FAA is also looking at Android tablets and the BlackBerry Playbook 2.0, he added.

The pilot was launched in January 2011 with an invitation to all FAA organizations to submit business cases for mobile devices. The program soon had 72 business cases covering a wide range of personnel, from aircraft mechanics to scientists. “We started the pilot with the question, ‘what is the business value of these devices?’”, Corcoran said.

FAA asked the groups why they needed alternative mobile devices such as tablets and then went about testing the validity of the various business cases, because the groups submitting them had to demonstrate that the devices would save both time and money, Corcoran said.

The agency also surveyed the various organizations’ personnel to determine what worked best for them. The results indicated that information consumers could do most of their work with a tablet computer, but they were not very effective for individuals who created information, he said.

Of the various groups using tablet computers, Corcoran cited two groups for whom the devices were especially useful: aviation mechanics and lawyers. The mechanics had previously relied on one desktop computer in their workspace to request parts and fill out reports. The tablets eliminated the need to cue up to access data. The mechanics were able to access technical manuals and order parts while doing their jobs, which saved man hours otherwise spent waiting to access the computer, he said.

The FAA’s legal group, which is responsible for litigating cases involving flight and airspace violations, also greatly benefited from the program, Corcoran said. The lawyers developed an application that allowed them to store and play radar images and tracks of flight violations. Using this tool, the legal group reported that the majority of cases settled before trial when presented with the evidence, saving the FAA up to $100,000 per case, he said.

“We have already declared that our mobile pilot is a success,” Corcoran said. One critical part of the program was to not constrain people in what they could do on the devices. He added that in many cases, the IT department would not have conceived the use or the need for a new application.

“You have no idea where that killer app of mobility will come from in your organization,” he said.


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