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OEMs Struggle With Connectivity Issues For Maintenance Technicians

Enabling on-site MRO technicians to collaborate interactively with experts is a worthwhile goal, but obstacles remain in making it a reality.

Manufacturers and MRO service providers are striving to offer documentation, video conferencing and augmented reality via mobile devices so maintenance technicians can receive off-site support from a database or live experts. The use of smartphones and tablets has become so pervasive in our personal lives and some jobs that the MRO industry may seem late in adopting them. However, connectivity infrastructure issues and concerns about safety (as in distracted technicians) are impeding the adoption of remote diagnostics—or maintenance mobility; the wording varies depending on the OEM-specific technologies.

Late last year, JetBlue became the launch customer for Airbus’s Maintenance Mobility offering. Developed by the airframer and IBM, Maintenance Mobility allows airline mechanics to access real-time technical information using iPads. The agreement with JetBlue Airways covers the integration of the Maintenance Mobility services into the airline’s maintenance information system, as well as the software and data hosting over five years.

Moving the analytics and information closer to the airplane and the technician is a major trend, according to John Maggiore, director of fleet and maintenance solutions at Boeing Digital Aviation. “The mechanic wants to have the information from previous flights in his own hands,” he tells Aviation Week. Aircraft health management was once a job for the back office, but now the technician’s role is growing.

Using applications (apps) that enable a video conversation, like Skype or Facetime, is not yet a commonplace way for line maintenance technicians to receive support at the aircraft. One challenge is insufficient bandwidth (whether Wi-Fi or cellular) in many places, says Pratt & Whitney Canada’s Kumar Kumarasingam, vice president of commercial services, citing Australia as an example. Even worse, Wi-Fi connectivity can be erratic due to engine-generated electromagnetic interference. This is one reason for the slow deployment of such communications in MRO.

Eric Alauzen, head of Air France Industries’ maintenance control center for long-haul Airbus aircraft, also sees airports as unequally equipped with essential IT infrastructure. Image quality is so important that if a video call is made between a technician and an expert, they would rather see a jerky video with high definition than one with fluid motion in low definition. Sharing photos has already become widespread at Air France Industries, via apps such as Whatsapp.

Air France Industries- KLM Engineering & Maintenance (AFI-KLM E&M) has tested several models of connected glasses. Would such devices be the ideal companion for a maintenance technician needing support on the job? “Be careful if the technician is on a ladder; also, don’t send him too many images—beware of attention-tunneling,” warns innovation director James Kornberg. In some instances, it is best not to send anything to the technician, but just to guide him verbally, he believes.

This caveat has not prevented some companies from developing augmented-reality systems dedicated to MRO. Engine maintenance specialist TAE is designing Fountx, a wearable augmented-reality system that enables a remote expert to support a technician in real time. The system includes an operator headset and an expert station.

The headset includes a near-eye display, which does not affect the user’s spatial awareness, according to TAE. A camera provides the remote expert with “immersive” communications.

Fountx uses intuitive gesturing; as the technician can see the remote expert’s hand gestures, the latter can point to the object to focus on. Or he can give an indication of which way to turn an object. This capability can be especially useful compared to trying to provide similar advice over the phone.

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 a touchscreen to suggest actions to the technician.

Slightly less spectacular—but closer to entry into service—is Safran Aircraft Engines’ (Snecma) B.SIde, a service and accompanying tool created to augment borescope inspections. A touchscreen, an internet connection and an audio headset can be linked to any kind of borescope. An expert (in-house or from Snecma) can thus remotely help the maintenance technician in real time. Among the functionalities are voice conversation, chatting and marking up an image.

The mechanic performing the borescope inspection also can share video. After completion of testing with some pilot customers such as Luxembourg-based Luxair, Safran Aircraft Engines’ own on-wing support teams will begin using the tool later this year.

Airbus’s Maintenance Mobility system is also almost in service. “We have started the development at JetBlue, but Maintenance Mobility is not yet fully deployed in operations,” says Philippe Gourdon, Airbus customer services  vice president for digital and data solutions.

He says the service is also in the “preparation phase” for another two carriers, Singapore Airlines and Brazil’s Avianca.

Airbus’s Maintenance Mobility is a web-based application hosted by Airbus as a service. It comprises a web page (for the supervisor) and apps (for the mechanics), synchronized by a cloud-based system (Smarter Fleet Platform). Thanks to integration with airline information systems, it provides maintenance supervisors with real-time monitoring on the progress of each aircraft’s turnaround activity. “The team leader can reinforce the team if he sees a risk of exceeding the turnaround time, allocating more workforce to secure the next dispatch,” Gourdon says.

It enables mechanics to access information needed to perform the turnaround, such as task cards or real-time aircraft maintenance messages. It also includes an e-Doc browser for access to the aircraft maintenance manual, as well as the illustrated parts catalog or minimum equipment list using a mobile device. Maintenance Mobility will also provide real-time fault analysis.

For mobile devices, it supports Android and iOS devices from a display size of 7 in. The tablet can be used for a video call. “The system would allow the technician at the aircraft to contact a back office engineer for a particular problem,” Gourdon says.

Currently, the app itself is not aimed at providing direct interaction with Airbus engineers in Toulouse, although such contact is possible via other means of communication. While it is not available today, Gourdon notes that Airbus is exploring enabling such direct contact via the app.

Although most modern airports are equipped with Wi-Fi on the air side, Airbus’s system features a backup, stand-alone mode for documentation in case the connection is lost, Gourdon says. The app can work offline and then exchange data when the connection is reestablished.

Maintenance Mobility also facilitates the technician’s preparation work. The post-flight report is broadcast by the aircraft and received on a mobile device, allowing the technician to prepare tools and parts before driving to the aircraft. At large airports where that drive can be long, this improved sequence can save a lot of time.

The first version of Maintenance Mobility is targeted at airlines and line maintenance. “We are now working on a version with additional features for MRO service providers, such as job cards,” Gourdon explains. Even though it is an Airbus-developed product, Maintenance Mobility can also be used with aircraft from other airframers.

Meanwhile, in 2013 Boeing launched a suite of apps to support technicians. With Maintenance Turn Time, a technician can access troubleshooting information, communicate in real time with back-office personnel and record damage on a 3-D image. Thanks to Boeing’s digital solutions, including connectivity, one customer—Virgin Atlantic—estimates each technician can save 2 hr. per day. In addition to iOS devices, Boeing’s app suite is planned to be available for Windows next year.

Boeing’s Maggiore suggests that conversations between technicians and the back office be in writing (rather than oral), as language issues may arise in aviation’s international environment.

Sometimes, the back office instantly knows more than the technician. With a tool Air France Industries has developed for the Airbus A380, the technician can perform tests while a back-office expert reads the resulting sensor data, transmitted via satcom. “We can determine whether it is a real or false problem,” Alauzen says.

Airbus’s Maintenance Mobility

 

GE Aviation emphasizes its mobile support solutions are used both ways between the field and the back office. “If the technician has questions about something he is seeing during the troubleshooting process, or if our engineering teams need to see something in greater detail to support the effort, the technician can use the new Capture app in the GE iOS App store to directly upload pictures into GE’s Rapid Data Forensics database for use in supporting the troubleshooting effort,” says Becky Johnson, fleet support director of customer operations for GE Aviation.

After troubleshooting is complete, GE engineers can use those images as they create new analytics related to the issue. In other words, the pictures are fed into the database of diagnostics signatures that help identify a specific failure mode. The database allows GE experts to identify and rapidly send specific analytics-based maintenance recommendations.

Technicians can use different communication modes depending on their needs. GE’s fleet support centers in Cincinnati and Shanghai offer 24/7 monitoring and assistance, and can be contacted by phone, email or via the customer portals. “We’ll also accept flight data via secure file transfer or email,” Johnson adds.

Pratt & Whitney Canada’s Kumarasingam still sees cell phones as the primary means of communication. “When a mechanic calls, it is often only when he is in distress so he dials a phone number; Skype is not second-nature,” he says. He sees the cell phone as having the edge in convenience. For AFI-KLM E&M’s Kornberg, the presence of a second technician—as is often already the case—would help in making a video call if that is needed.

Kumarasingam also points out that the data should be provided in a format that is most useful for the customer. For example, in a remote region with a weak internet signal, text would be better than sending images or video, which require much more bandwidth.

Pratt & Whitney Canada’s (P&WC) data analysis center shares alerts and trend data with customers using its FAST Solution within 15 min. of an aircraft landing, and specialists are on tap to discuss and make suggestions on the spot. Upon engine shutdown, full-flight engine and aircraft data are captured and transmitted wirelessly from the aircraft to P&WC’s data center.

Launched this year, the MyP&WC Power portal (accessible from a desktop computer, smartphone or tablet) includes videos of how to remove and replace a component. The technician may then want to call the Customer First (or C-First) center if he still has a question.

In the future, Kumarasingam predicts some form of video chat will likely emerge as another tool. “Seeing is useful to find the right position of a pipe,” he says.

Honeywell is considering “something like Google glass,” Bharathan Aravamudhan, senior product marketing manager, says. “We are taking the maintainer to that nirvana—walking around wirelessly, hands free and talking to an expert who helps you troubleshoot.” Such a complete suite of hardware, software and connectivity could be in service in a couple of years, in his view.

Currently, with Honeywell’s software, the technician can use an iPad to download data or email a picture. A fault code may be scanned from the aircraft’s central maintenance computer, generating an action plan.

In this hoped-for nirvana, where the communications gap between the expert and the technician in the field has been bridged, the maintainer will look forward to doing his job, and “maintaining will no longer be the necessary evil,” Aravamudhan pledges. 

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