Virtual reality has just hit the consumer world with a bang, and the aerospace industry is starting to see it, and its ‘relation’ augmented reality, in action – Japan Airlines recently deployed a virtual reality headset for engine mechanics and flight crew trainees. The market for VR and AR is growing as more businesses realise the potential benefits of the technologies - one report from Digi-Capital predicts the VR/AR market to be worth $£95bn by 2020.
The technologies have been used in both civil aviation and the military for simulated training for several years, but only now are we seeing them implemented to fulfil a key requirement in MRO – the shortage of skilled engineers.
Expansion too quick for training to keep pace
The rising passenger demand for air travel has resulted in a global expansion for airlines, but maintenance expertise is struggling to keep up. The Middle East and Asia-Pacific regions in particular are witnessing huge growth in aircraft procurement. Both regions saw year-on-year growth of over 10 percent in air passenger demand in 2016, eclipsing the growth in demand of North American and European carriers. According to Boeing, the ME and APAC regions also took the most deliveries of large and medium wide-body aircraft in 2015, an indicator of the serious fleet expansion and modernisation of airlines. In addition, as western military air forces have reduced warfighter numbers in support areas, the traditional pool and outflow of mid-career engineers into more stable civil careers is rapidly reducing.
Training not easy in a highly-regulated industry
There is a lag of some 5 years to get a B1 or B2 EASA licence as a qualified aircraft engineer and in many countries there is simply not yet the training infrastructure to drive this. Even in the US, it can take up to eight elapsed years for a maintenance professional to become fully licensed. Most of this time needs to be spent doing on-the-job training and classes, which can further be delayed by difficulties in providing access to the practical EASA Part-145 training. With a highly-regulated industry such as aviation MRO, tasks are qualifications oriented. Specific training enables engineers to do specific jobs, on specific aircraft and no more.
The result is a global shortage of maintenance professionals, particularly in the APAC, Middle East, and the more remote locations serviced by Western airlines. At last year's Airline Engineering & Maintenance Middle East Conference, John Bowell, Managing Director of the newly-formed ADA Millennium, a management consultancy joint venture between the Abu Dhabi Aviation and UK-based jcba Limited, predicted Middle East aircraft maintenance would require 11 million man hours a year. The first Emirates Airbus A380 overhaul required a round-the-clock 55-day maintenance programme.
To put this into perspective, Ashley Davies, senior lecturer of aircraft maintenance at Abu Dhabi Polytechnic, also discussed resource shortages at the same conference, reporting only 342 UAE nationals were licensed as aircraft engineers.
Globalisation of routes
In civil aviation, routes are evolving so fast that operational hubs are both expanding and globally dispersing. In Europe and North America, major airports are supported by a wealth of qualified engineers and facilities to get aircraft back in the air as soon as possible. There are also established networks of 3rd party MRO providers. In other geographies, many experiencing rapid growth, there is no such pool of maintenance engineers. If an airline is to expand its network or an aircraft is forced to land in remote locations, the challenges of being able to quickly return it to operational status are a lot more complex.
Three options, one clear winner
Maintenance operators are faced with three options:
- Strategically position maintenance engineers aligned to aircraft routes
An option is for civil aviation operators is to strategically place more qualified engineers on the ground across global flight paths - either indigenous or contracted 3rd party – but that has to be unrealistic in most cases. The average pay for one aircraft maintenance engineer is £40,000 per year. You need both senior and junior engineers in place as well as managing shift patterns. There are also the overheads to provide human support in remoter areas in terms of travel, accommodation and expenses, not to mention the maintenance facilities required.
- Operate a 'fix when required' approach
Should airlines risk leaving an aircraft sitting idle in a remote location and fly a qualified engineer out to fix it on a case-by-case basis? This would possibly be feasible on busier routes close to global airport hubs, but fully qualified engineers are already in scarce supply. In extreme circumstances, if an aircraft must land in a remote location it may take several days of travel for a suitably qualified maintenance engineer to reach the aircraft. Boeing estimates that, depending on the operator and age of an aircraft, an aircraft on ground (AOG) for one or two hours can cost anywhere between £8,000 and £120,000. When returning an aircraft to operational status, time means money – the further an operator can spread their maintenance engineers, the less revenue they lose.
- The Third Way - Augmented and Virtual Reality
Using remote guidance via a wearable or mobile device, engineer skills can be ‘augmented’ as more qualified technicians provide expertise from any location at any time. Virtual reality simulation can even speed the training process itself. At the 2016 MRO Europe conference in Amsterdam, ICF International vice-president Oliver Jonathan Berger predicted virtual reality could shave one or two years off traditional maintenance engineer training programmes. AR and VR could be of particular interest to MROs in the coming years – reducing training times, improving maintenance efficiency and bringing huge cost savings.
Enter Augmented reality
Current mobile solutions support collaboration and drive in better data capture and compliance but in themselves do not solve the skills ‘not in the correct place’ problem. Maintenance staff could of course contact senior engineers via Skype video or on normal phone to ask questions. However, there is no way of seeing or even demonstrating or interacting with how a task should be executed. These are airworthiness decisions after all. Integrating augmented reality with a configuration-controlled solution adds the necessary rigor to remote maintenance tasks.
Australian Engine MRO specialist and IFS customer TAE has developed fountx, a telepresence and data transmission solution that connects onsite operators with a technical expert anywhere in the world, in real-time. Through wearable augmented reality systems, fountx gives maintenance workers in remote locations access to a virtual pair of expert eyes and hands to guide them through complex tasks.
The headset includes a near-eye display and a camera, which provides the remote expert with immersive communications without affecting the user’s spatial awareness – important in dealing with maintenance in tight spaces.
The remote user can access the internet or a controlled 'live document' to assist with the task at hand and fountx has the ability to record operations, enabling evidence gathering. The system also enables the remote expert to mark up the image the technician is viewing, for example by circling areas or using pointing arrows. The expert just uses his or her hands and a touch screen.
Partnering for the future
IFS is already working with AR specialists XMReality on remote guidance through augmented reality into the field-based environment, enabling engineers involved in a repair to contact colleagues back at base. With this remote guidance, a support technician can watch, show and guide the engineer through every step of the repair without having to leave base.
Using smart glasses or a mobile device, engineers can see a real-time and interactive demonstration of the repair job right in front of their eyes. These skills can be leveraged anywhere, anytime with the capability of modern mobile technology.
What’s next – signing off aircraft through augmented reality
When these AR and VR technologies are integrated with an aviation ERP or MRO solution, the maintenance operator can quickly execute and report repair jobs – getting equipment back up and running as soon as possible.
The next step has to be developing these solutions to the point where a ‘virtual sign-off’ is considered by airline authorities as safe as a sign off on the tarmac. Augmented reality has a vital role to play from start to finish.
With augmented reality maximising engineer efficiency, operators will no longer have to ‘mind the gap’ when it comes to maintenance resources.