Not so long ago, “data” seemed to be not much more than a buzzword. “We are just beginning to understand how powerful it is,” Airbus CEO Tom Enders said recently, deeming data “central” for the future of the commercial aircraft industry. He may have been alluding to a still-under-wraps agreement with suppliers, under which a large amount of data is shared to improve the production process as well as aircraft in-service reliability.
Now the extension of the Skywise digital platform—an Airbus partnership with Palantir Technologies—to the airframer’s suppliers is official. In just months, it has demonstrated spectacular improvements in the understanding of some components’ durability. Problems in the supply chain now can be anticipated.
Newly available power and methods in data processing also may soon help revolutionize cockpit architecture.
Analysis turns data into information. Talking about Skywise, Marc Fontaine, digital transformation officer at Airbus, refers to “the next stage of uniting the aviation industry’s data.” The new knowledge, he stresses, is how to integrate data.
First, it has to be extracted from heterogeneous software programs that were not necessarily designed to be linked—an Excel spreadsheet and an enterprise-resource-planning system, for instance. With aircraft operators—the first targets of Skywise—Airbus has demonstrated that all facets of an airline’s operation can be connected in 1-3 days.
The second factor is the confidentiality paradox. To make an analysis relevant, it has to be based on a substantial amount of data, so inputs from multiple participants have to be entered into the mix. But the provider of one set of information may want to shield its data from other participants.
Each piece of data thus has to be labeled acccording to its level of confidentiality. Each participant in the common database is authorized to see part or all of the data, depending on its accreditation. Fontaine calls this “data governance.”
Finally, data has to be carefully chosen to avoid creating a cumbersome “data lake” for the sake of storing information.
Late last year, 10 “early adopters” for Skywise were selected among suppliers. One of them, Liebherr Aerospace, says it already better understands the behavior of its engine bleed valves. Skywise gives it access to data—including weather—that has since been analyzed and correlated to in-service failures or early removals. The company thus can issue new, customized maintenance recommendations.
Liebherr’s engineers have found that a thunderstorm can cause accelerated aging of a part, says Nicolas Bonleux, managing director and chief sales officer at Liebherr Aerospace and Transportation Systems. The new methods can also enable engineers to determine, without removing the valve, that a fault message is false. The bottom line for an operator is reduced maintenance costs and downtime.
“The projects demonstrated that bringing together a wide range of data and conducting holistic analyses enable us to realize a much deeper and better understanding of the in-service behavior of onboard systems and components,” he says.
In terms of predictive maintenance, EasyJet “rightly” challenged Airbus, Fontaine notes. He envisages that aircraft-on-ground situations gradually may become history.
As for operators, Airbus is expanding the vision to its military product line with the launch of SmartForce, which is now in the trial stage.
In production, to avoid supply chain disruptions, aerostructures specialist Premium Aerotec, an Airbus subsidiary, has tested another application. It recognizes “trends that require early action to ensure a stable manufacturing process,” says Premium Aerotec Chairman Thomas Ehm.
The application enables “fast and easy root-cause analysis of recurring missing parts,” he says, notably through better visibility into manufacturing status and better anticipation on the production line. It also gives real-time information to Airbus such as when a part reaches a given stage of production.
In the not-so-distant future, flight decks may undergo far-reaching changes, thanks to growing data-processing capabilities. A number of ideas are being explored such as a Siri-like aide, says Peter Hitchcock, Thales vice president in charge of commercial avionics. One would be a system running in the background and prompting suggestions to pilots such as: “You could optimize your trajectory to cut your fuel burn.”
Thanks to aircraft connectivity, the suggestions could come from the ground, with a “digital twin” of the aircraft being installed at an operations center. The arrangement would save weight on the aircraft by transferring the computing power to the operations center. Data analytics also would use external sources because it is easier to create an open-world architecture on the ground.
Thales’ recent acquisitions, such as of Silicon Valley-based Guavus, are helping the company conduct real-time analysis of large amounts of data.