Maintenance is a major contributor to aircraft operating costs, flight delays and cancellations. Despite longer-lasting aircraft and more durable engines, airlines now spend more on maintenance than on fuel or crew. The need to keep assets operationally available while cutting maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) costs is a pressing issue. Aircraft operators are pushing for faster troubleshooting, automated aircraft inspection to reduce downtime; better task planning, and optimized parts management.
OEMs, MROs, and suppliers are responding with a range of innovative technologies and techniques, including robots, drones, virtual / augmented / mixed reality aids, machine learning / neural networks / artificial intelligence, blockchain, 3D printing, additive manufacturing, and more.
Highlighted here are just a few of the hundreds of initiatives in process to maintain aircraft smarter, faster, cheaper.
Inspection robots and drones
Today, typical visual inspections of commercial aircraft can take up to six hours. Robots and drones have the potential to cut this time dramatically while offering greater accuracy of checks, freeing up engineers’ time, reducing maintenance costs and improving safety.
Miniature, cockroach-inspired camera robots, deployed in “swarms,” will be able to be turned loose inside an engine to help inspection of difficult-to-access components. Rolls-Royce plans to develop 1-cm-long (0.4-in) versions which can even remove and replace defective material.
EasyJet and Thomas Cook Airlines have experimented with an autonomous drone, developed by MRO Drone, that can inspect a full narrowbody exterior in 30 minutes and a widebody in one hour. Using technology borrowed from nuclear reactor inspection, the RAPID (Remote Automated Plane Inspection and Dissemination) system can also inspect specific structures such as after reports of a bird strike.
Zurich-based SR Technics is using a robot from Invert Robotics (New Zealand) that uses a patented suction mechanism to adhere to and traverse a range of surfaces including aluminium, glass and carbon fibre; even when aircraft surfaces are wet or require an upside-down inspection. Equipped with high-definition cameras and sensor technology, the robot records and transmits video images to a ground-based screen for real-time analysis by line-maintenance staff, enabling efficient visual inspections on the tarmac or in the hangar. The robot may soon also include ultra-sound and thermographic testing.
The SPIRIT project is bringing together eight partners from Austria, Germany and Italy to develop a robotic inspection solution using a range of various inspection devices – such as 3D surface inspection, thermography or X-ray – that will eliminate complications involved in programming a robot motion path. The project aims to reduce the time-consuming and expensive process when programming robots for an application-specific solution.
Hangar of the future
Airbus’ Hangar of the Future (HoF) project combines various technologies to digitize and automate maintenance activities to increase overall maintenance process efficiency. HoF combines the use of innovative technologies and smart, IoT (internet of Things)-connected equipment such as ‘cobots’ (collaborative robots – like the “Air-Cobot” shown in the photo), drones, scanners, cameras, non-destructive sensors, with aircraft technical documentation and aircraft in-service data collated through Airbus’ open data platform, Skywise.
Augmented and mixed reality
“The Next Generation of Aviation Professionals (NGAPs) entering the aviation industry represents a new generation of learners. To engage and meet their needs, the aviation community has been harnessing innovative technologies to look beyond tradition training methods and enhance workforce practices,” says Ms. Lori Brown, a professor at Western Michigan University and the ICAO NGAP programme Outreach Chair.
Brown has teamed with Microsoft to apply Hololens to overlay 3D holographic content onto the physical world to train technicians how to maintain aircraft. Students can be immersed, for example, inside a jet turbofan engine or interact with 3D cockpits. “HoloLens is intuitive and offers a natural means of interaction. There’s no mouse, wire or touch screen. All you need are simple gestures to create and alter holograms, your voice to communicate with apps, and your eyes to navigate and analyze content,” Brown explains.
Boeing is using “smart glasses” augmented reality (AR) from Upskill to simplify the compex process for wire installation, resulting in a 25 per cent reduction in production time and lowered error rates to effectively zero. The AR system that enables kitting of 3D drawings based on wire installation plans, which are presented to the end user, spatially aligned to an aircraft, on a wearable device.
By 2025, more than 38.000 new aircraft will be in operation worldwide, producing many times more data than previous generation aircraft. The proliferation of sensors on modern aircraft combined with better data routers has led to a 60-fold increase in the number of data parameters collected from each flight, says Mr. Serge Panabiere, Airbus head of services business development. The newest engines can generate up to one terabyte of data each cycle. For MROs, this means an increasing amount of data knowledge along with a growing complexity of their businesses.
To better manage this deluge of data, MROs are turning to big data, machine learning, deep learning, neural networks, artificial intelligence, blockchain and other developing information management technologies.
Lufthansa Technik, the world’s largest independent provider of MRO services, has created a digital platform for the aviation industry, AVIATAR, using a hybrid “cloud” infrastructure based on enterprise open source software from Red Hat. The company’s application development teams collaborate with data scientists, airplane engineers and other experts to better predict events using a shared repository of industry data, such as aircraft sensor data, as well as operational data, such as flight plans and delay information.
Airbus developed the Skywise open platform to collect the vast amount of data coming from in-service aircraft, combine them with airline and OEM data and conduct in-depth data analysis to develop applications aiming at anticipating and optimizing maintenance. Airbus offers free access to anonymized operational data to any airline that submits its own. Thus, participating airlines benefit from a useful benchmarking tool, while Airbus receives the data it needs to refine its paid-for predictive maintenance product.