Printed headline: HUMS for Helicopters
For the operators of large helicopters, the principle of big data is nothing new. For years, these companies and their associated MRO operations have been collecting and analyzing vibration data from onboard health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS), looking for potential issues within an aircraft’s dynamic systems as well as clues to potential maintenance problems.
However, in the current era of analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms, new uses for the data coming off the helicopters are being enabled and helping to democratize the use of systems like HUMS.
“Today in the helicopter world, a lot of things are being done in the maintenance world as they would have been 40-50 years ago,” says Matthieu Louvot, executive vice president for customer support and services at Airbus Helicopters.
“Now is the time to digitize.”
The company’s own in-house services, such as FlyScan, launched in 2017, allow customers to upload their HUMS data to the company, where it is crunched and processed and delivered as a status report on specific aircraft or the wider fleet.
Airbus is targeting a 15-min. turnaround for such reports once the data is uploaded, and Louvot says the company is working toward that.
“The helicopter market is much more is scattered than the fixed-wing world, we have big and small operators with different mission segments,” explains Louvot. “With this very diverse customer base, we have to be adaptable to different customer environments, and this can be very hard to do.”
So far, Airbus Helicopters customers have connected 270 helicopters to the FlyScan service with around 100 more expected to join in the last few months. FlyScan’s predictive services are up and running with 10 customers, and Louvot says the system already has conservatively prevented one aircraft-on-ground incident per year. Next steps for FlyScan include incorporating data from the onboard Helionix avionics suite. Eventually the data could help to drive down component times between overhauls.
“As we get more customers and more data, we can refine the algorithms making them more accurate. With time the power of the service will improve,” says Louvot.
Airbus is also using AI to perform what Louvot describes as text-mining, which can be used to connect what might be perceived as different maintenance issues on an aircraft operating in different parts of the world. Differing descriptions or use of language can prevent linkage of one problem on one helicopter to another, but AI can data-mine such reports, and link and identify them.
“This helps to cluster the events and accelerate the solution,” says Louvot.
Airbus believes enabling online HUMS services will broaden the use of HUMS across the rotary-wing community.
For many years, HUMS generally has been used only on heavy or medium-size helicopters or by large fleet operators with their own MRO organizations. Services like FlyScan could help to ease the use of HUMS for smaller operators and even those with smaller aircraft such as light-twin helicopters, types for which the cost in terms of installation and payload previously would not have been economical.
Other manufacturers are offering similar technology. Leonardo Helicopters’ HeliWise service sees HUMS data uploaded to the company’s servers, which incorporate algorithms with advanced anomaly detection and advanced vibration data-mining to crunch the data. The data then are delivered back through an app which can be used by the operator to keep track of the fleet. A simple traffic-light system defines the availability of the aircraft, with green signaling available for operations.
Others have been looking at how to process HUMS data in-flight so potential issues can be noted to potentially accelerate maintenance turnarounds.
Back in 2017, Sikorsky and Gulf of Mexico operator Petroleum Helicopters Inc. (PHI) said they had been testing a real-time HUMS system capable of warning a pilot of potential issues and downloading the details to a ground station, in the same way as the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System is used in the fixed-wing commercial transport world. PHI’s idea was that in the event of a problem, maintenance equipment and parts could be prepositioned for an aircraft’s arrival so mechanics could use information provided in-flight to begin work as soon as the aircraft landed.
Since then the system, which was developed jointly by Outerlink Global Solutions—an affiliate of U.S. helicopter completions company Metro Aviation—and Sikorsky Aircraft, has been kitted on all of PHI’s S-92 helicopter fleet and trialed in the North Sea with oil-and-gas operator Bristow.