Dealing with the Big Data surge

Having taken in many of the conference sessions at Aviation Week’s MRO Americas 2016 in Dallas last week, I noticed a series of recurring themes, one of which was the influx of Big Data into commercial aviation and how it is already influencing many aspects of a company’s operation.

Given the backlog of thousands of highly connected next-generation aircraft entering the fleets of the world’s airlines in the next 20 years, MROs, OEMs, and airlines are adopting increasingly sophisticated strategies in mining the right information and using it to better drive maintenance operations, safety, efficiency and decision making. Naturally, this is spawning a lot of innovation in the field of analytics which was evident from many of the companies and individuals I spoke with at the event.

But despite impressive new ways of utilising data, the process itself remains a challenge. While Big Data is by no means a new issue – with data collecting having been around in aviation for decades – the volume is set to increase rapidly in the coming years.

An often used example of this is Boeing’s 787 widebody – the poster boy of data in aircraft - which can generate up to 500GB in just one flight, with even factors such as cabin and tyre pressure recorded alongside engine and component information.  

With data very much here to stay, one of the questions I was keen to get some answers to was exactly how firms – whether they be MROs, OEMs or airlines – are approaching the Big Data question in the form of strategies.

Deepak Sharma, director supply chain at AAR, enthused about the innovative approach the aftermarket specialist is using towards Big Data, which he predicted will influence many of the firm’s future plans and spawn new approaches in the near-future.

“Everybody is talking about data but no one is managing it in the way we’re looking at it,” he said, revealing AAR has amassed 150 million hours of reliability data to date.

OEMs are also getting in on the act, with firms like GE Aviation and Rolls-Royce expanding their data and analytics projects in recent years. Pratt & Whitney is another OEM publicising its activities in this field. Last year it teamed up with technology company IBM to specifically focus on Big Data issues, which included the analysis of data from nearly 4,000 aircraft engines to aid the prediction of faults.

Andrew Tanner, vice-president of customer service at the Connecticut-headquartered firm which has 14 Big Data projects in progress, said the firm has also used data to give its staff and customers greater support.

“We’ve invested in technology for training such as 3D animations to make the big data experiences as real as possible, as well as investing in frontline staff and better tools for communicating internally and with the customer,” he said.

“We’ve recently put in a new platform to make sure there is tracking so the data is structured and can be searched. Pratt & Whitney is trying to answer questions no more than once, and with a good structured database support the customer more quickly and more accurately whatever time zone our teams are in.”    

Perhaps one of the ultimate outcomes of the Big Data trend is the concept being used to aid the power of prediction. Predictive maintenance is expected to be adopted by more aviation companies in the coming decade, replacing the industry’s inclination for reactive and preventative maintenance approaches.

David Grasso, VP North America aerospace and defence at technology consultancy Capgemini, told me that predictive maintenance is both a revolution and an evolution, and one driven out of necessity by the fact newer aircraft are now flying computers.

“As aircraft and systems become more complicated, there is more software to contend with. Some recent aircraft crashes were driven by software failure, so now maintenance teams need to maintain complex systems that are mechanical, electrical and computer-driven systems.”

With commercial aviation embracing Big Data but seemingly only at the tip of the analytical iceberg, the future of the industry looks one awash with new possibilities.

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