“Mixed Reality for MRO is not another software package but a whole new approach to aircraft maintenance," stresses Konstantyn Shyshkin, CEO of Spiral Technology. “It will fundamentally change the way technicians interact with information.”
Mixed Reality (MR) will provides access to technical data via head-mounted computers overlaying virtual screens on top of physical objects. Shyshkin predicts it will be applied first to advanced tasks with multiple decision points and options. For example, engine inspections and disassembly and assessment of components subject to complex damage. “Jobs that require constant access to numerous manuals,” he explains.
“Take the borescope inspection,” the Spiral CEO explains. The current approach is to snap five to six gigabytes of pictures and videos and to pass these on to an engineer on a memory stick or to upload imagery to the cloud. Mixed Reality glasses could assist analysis of this data in several ways: visualizing the exact engine locations where damage is suspected; providing hands-free access to reference data such as damage-tolerance tables; and accessing pictures and comments from past inspections.
Most VR benefits will come from time saved and reduced rework. “Imagine having all your job cards and maintenance manuals appear in front of your eyes at the right time,” Shyshkin stresses. Other VR gains will be in training and certifying apprentice and junior mechanics.
VR is the most mature of the new digital reality technologies, with Augmented Reality (AR) still emerging but promising even wider applications. AR applications are easy to develop and implement, but their tiny screen located on the side of glasses limits benefits.
Spiral focuses on MR, the interactive version of AR. It uses holographic glasses that immerse users in 3D graphics, virtual data dashboards and physical object recognition.
Shyshkin point out that Airbus is now moving to MR in manufacturing, using Microsoft’s HoloLens2 and Azure cloud to feed data. The OEM estimates MR can improve efficiency of some manufacturing tasks by 30%. And aerospace manufacturing is much more standardized and repetitive than troubleshooting complex maintenance problems. The potential gains in MRO could thus be much larger.
Spiral recommend implementation of MR in two phases. First, a proof of concept taking three to six months. Then a solution roll-out taking about a year. Shyshkin expects massive deployments of MR as early as 2020.
Spiral has focused on developing MR for HoloLens2 as it seems to the most advanced device today. But Magic Leap, Vuzix and NReal glasses are other options. MR for some uses can be run on glasses even without connectivity, but more sophisticated uses will require Wi-Fi. 5G cell networks should widen the range of applications further, but this is two steps away. Even HoloLens2 is not yet equipped with 5G chips.
For AR, the range of headsets is much wider, including RealWear, Nreal Light, Optinvent, Osterhout and Moverio BT-35.