A version of this article appears in the September 8 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.
“The next big trend in aviation maintenance will be wearable technology,” says Kerry Frank, CEO and Cofounder of Beloit, -Wisconsin-based Comply365. “It’s much more convenient to wear a watch, or eyeglasses, than carry around a tablet.” Although Comply365 is developing technology for wearables in an airline application, Frank stresses they are still considered uncharted territory. “Since the technology is just emerging, we have not really seen how durable wearable devices would be in an MRO environment,” she explains.
There is, in fact, a sense of the jury being out. David Campbell, JetBlue Airways’ vice president for technical operations, notes that while the carrier is not looking to introduce wearable devices into its operations at this time, it does plan to look into them further as the technology advances. “They may give our maintenance technicians the ability to get better on-hand, step-by-step instructions delivered to them while out in the field,” he says.
The major advantages of wearable devices in MRO is that they afford technicians the advantage of viewing information and communicating via voice or video displays—hands-free, says Stephane Chiekh, innovation manager for SITA Lab in Geneva. For instance, he notes, smart glasses display the information right in front of a user’s eyes, so he does not have to pick up a tablet or smartphone.
Chiekh reports that SITA’s research has focused on smart glasses, specifically three products—Google Glass, Epson Moverio, and Vusix M100. Between January and June, the lab ran a series of tests with these devices in airport terminals, specifically in the passenger boarding areas. In addition, SITA initiated a trial use of the wearables in the MRO facility of an airline in July, but Chiekh did not name it.
With the current state of the art, ruggedness, connectivity and battery life are the primary issues with wearable devices, he says. “For example, we found that if you use Google Glass for video streaming, battery life is about 30 minutes. But if you’re just going to be pushing data out to someone at the tarmac or back office, battery life is about 9-10 hours.”
SITA believes that the OEMs of wearable devices will address both the battery life and ruggedness factors within the next two years, making them more acceptable even within the MRO environment. “The adoption of wearables by the airlines will begin to gain momentum by 2015, and it will be even more widespread by 2016,” Chiekh suggests.
Nonetheless, he does not predict that wearable devices will totally replace tablets. “There are a lot of things which, because of their size, are better displayed on a tablet. But over the next five years you’ll see both glasses and tablets working together.”