Commercial aviation will require nearly 700,000 new maintenance technicians over the next 20 years, according to Boeing. Several years of training are required for each new tech, and specialists in complex parts like engines, composites and avionics need further training. Even so, techs stationed outside maintenance bases need help with complex repairs when aircraft are grounded at their airports. Sending expert engineers to assist with complex repairs is expensive, but also common as revenues lost by grounded jets are immense.
Modern technology can help with both initial training and supporting techs in the field. Accenture has developed applications that run on Microsoft’s HoloLens goggles that use virtual and augmented reality to assist with training and field support. The software has been used to help repair technicians at Schneider Electric, the global energy management and automation firm. “It’s mainstream now,” says Paresh Patel, Accenture director of Mobile and IoT. His firm is now working with Bombardier and Airbus to develop aircraft-repair versions and talking to interested airlines.
HoloLens is a head-mounted goggle that can project 3D images in front of the wearer and has speakers. In training, the goggles can project a 3D image of a complex part, for example an aircraft engine. The user can rotate the part or disassemble it to examine components and better understand how it works, anyplace or any time, in virtual reality. In short, the application gives students an opportunity to gain or reinforce knowledge without touching actual aircraft parts, activities that are limited in time and location and more expensive to perform.
In the field, the application can work in a similar but more focused way. Say a mechanic must repair a system or component with which he is not very familiar. This mechanic and other mechanics and specialized engineers at the airline’s engineering base can view actual parts and 3D images of parts through HoloLens. Engineers can walk the technician through repairs step-by-step by disassembling the component, showing its elements and how they are to be repaired, removed or replaced.
Manipulation of images is easy. The HoloLens projection includes a visual ‘button’ to the side. The wearer just makes simple gestures with one hand to ‘click’ the button. Click on an individual part and data and specification for the part are projected. No typing or pushing physical buttons on a device are necessary. With Cortana built into HoloLens, Accenture’s repair application could be voice-activated in the future.
The 579-gram HoloLens can supply part images even offline, but needs connectivity for collaboration. The effort required to adapt Accenture’s application to different aircraft depends on whether these already have 3D models. Most modern aircraft do. Patel says potential aircraft users have been “excited and amazed” by the application.
HoloLens costs several thousand dollars, so is not for every-day use. But it could be extremely useful for specific tasks. Japan Airlines began testing HoloLens for engine mechanics in 2016.