Qantas prepares to ditch mainframes for the cloud

Qantas prepares to ditch mainframes for the cloud

Airline leverages AWS to help slash fuel bill

Qantas is planning to move the vast majority of its compute workload into the cloud over the next two years, the airline's chief technology officer, Rob James, today told the Amazon Web Services Summit in Sydney.

“We have a roadmap to get our compute workloads, which includes mainframes and mid-range systems, into the cloud by the end of 2021,” the CTO said.

The airline is already making extensive use of cloud services to help optimise its operations, he told the AWS conference.

A cloud-based application, dubbed Constellation, is expected to save Qantas millions of dollars a year. Fuel one of the largest, and volatile,  costs for an airline, James told the conference. “Anywhere between 20 and 40 per cent of an operating cost for an airline.”

Last year Qantas spent $3.2 billion on fuel for its fleet. Every time a fully loaded A380 takes off, about 7 litres of fuel is pumped to its engine every second. “What you want to do, is fly those things as efficiently as possible,” James said.

Qantas partnered with Sydney University and the Australian Centre for Field Robotic to develop a new flight planning algorithm for the airline’s fleet.

The resulting system, Constellation, draws on millions of data points, including real-time weather data, elevation data and flight patterns, and simulates tens of thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands, of possible flight paths. The result lets Qantas unearth the most efficient and safest routes.

“When we do that, it gives us more flexibility with what we do with our aircraft – we don’t have to weight-limit the aircraft and we can take more passengers to their destination,” James said. “Or we can choose to fly on a less turbulent path or we can pick up a tailwind and get you to your destination much sooner.”

Constellation, which is being rolled out across the Qantas network, is going to save the company $40 million a year, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce told the conference, through a 1-2 per cent optimisation on flight paths.

“We did a Sydney to Santiago flight, to South America, we saved one tonne of fuel on that flight,” the CEO said.

Constellation will also reduce Qantas’ carbon emissions by around 50 million kilograms each year, according to Joyce.

James said that cloud was playing an increasingly important role helping the airline process the immense amount of data generated by its fleet.

Every time a Qantas Boeing 787 Dreamliner lands, the airline downloads half a terabyte of sensor data to analyse, he said. “That is dwarfed in comparison to what we expect in the future,” James said. “The next generation of aircraft is going to give us a petabyte of data every time they fly from the engines alone. That’s a 2000x increase on what we’re doing today. So the growth is amazing.”

Cloud has helped Qantas “achieve so much more than we were able to do before,” he added. “We’re able to access compute power that arguably we probably wouldn’t have had previously.”

An example is an simulation application developed by the Qantas engineering team dubbed QuadraX that helps the airline make aircraft buying decisions.

Buying an aircraft is a 10-15 year commitment, the CTO said. QuadraX runs simulations using a range of flight paths, traffic conditions and weather patterns using different aircraft models and engine configurations.

“Every time we run one of these simulations, we’re basically doing a 10-year study in about nine hours,” he said. “How do we do it? Again, in the cloud. We basically spin up approximately 4000 CPUs, run the analysis, and then spin them right down to nothing.”

James said that Qantas was continuing to push the limits in other areas of technology as well, including through its long-haul flight initiative Project Sunrise: Following the 2018 launch of Qantas’ direct Perth to London route, the airline approached manufacturers Boeing and Airbus and set them the challenge of designing and building an aircraft capable of flying non-stop from Melbourne or Sydney to New York or London.

“That will mean the aircraft will have to fly 21 hours to London, 19 hours to get to New York,” Joyce said. “We figured that the technology was getting there, so we put a challenge. I wrote a note to the CEO of Airbus and the CEO of Boeing and said we want you to help develop an aircraft that can do it. And we’d like it done by 2022.”

The reaction from both businesses was “huge,” with Airbus’ CEO describing it to Joyce as being akin to the space race. Joyce said that Qantas also faces its own Project Sunrise challenges, including devising the product, addressing necessary regulatory changes and figuring out how to deliver a healthy and comfortable 21 hour flight for passengers.

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