With Internet of Things (IoT) technologies all around us, underpinned by a growing array of connected devices working concurrently with one another and automatically capturing data, airlines are increasingly adjusting their operations strategy to reap the benefits of the devices-and-data marriage. Because IoT is not a single entity, but exists in many forms via connected objects and devices such as machinery, computers, and mobile devices, its potential is expansive and can be useful across many areas of an airline’s operation.
Recent IoT-driven projects pioneered by airlines at the customer level have ranged from smart reusable luggage tags to a tool to help travelers manage jet lag. Airline maintenance teams are also getting in on the act. An unprecedented level of data must be managed—thanks to the growing number of sensors on engines and components—and MRO teams now have a way to control this flow. By using new technologies to put this data to work in real time, opportunities exist for airlines to generate greater operational efficiencies and cost reductions.
Identifying the Benefits
Helge Sachs, head of corporate innovation management and product development at Lufthansa Technik, pinpoints specific areas where airlines can gain a competitive advantage with IoT in their MRO activities. “The real value of IoT for airline maintenance operations lies in smoother operations, increased reliability, better dispatch availability of an aircraft and reducing the number of unscheduled maintenance incidents,” he says. The German MRO’s parent group Lufthansa has been among the most proactive airlines for IoT, pioneering multiple projects related to automation and robotics while launching apps for smartwatches and phones.
On a smaller scale, airline maintenance divisions are steadily introducing mobile applications and devices such as tablets for operations in increasingly digitized hangars. Finnair is one of the many carriers looking at these devices. “IoT applications are very interesting and will offer great opportunities in several areas in the future, especially in our logistics and maintenance operations,” says Ari Kokko, logistics manager at the airline’s MRO division, Finnair Technical Services.
Like many maintenance organizations, Finnair Technical Services has transitioned to a paperless setup in its hangars, and Kokko says it will continue to explore new IoT-driven innovations. “In technical operations we have an ongoing project for developing mobile platforms and tools for aircraft maintenance, which will be a base for our future paperless maintenance operations,” Kokko says. Meanwhile, Anders Engstrom, vice president of maintenance production at Scandinavian Airlines, says the carrier has grown its connectivity via tablets. “We’ve introduced iPads for our maintenance technicians and we’re going to continue that development by using manuals and carrying out procedures in a more digital way,” he says.
Wearables to Drones
Wearable devices increasingly are used by airline flight crews and, much as with mobile apps, they are also becoming mainstays of aircraft hangars. Maintenance and cargo personnel at Japan Airlines began using Google Glass for inspections in 2014, and despite its lack of success in the general consumer market, the device and similar applications are expected to grow in use with airlines.
Another area where IoT technologies could shape airlines’ MRO plans is through the use of drones for maintenance work. Given their connected status with sensors able to send information to a backend database, drones are now included in the IoT trajectory. One the most high-profile projects related to maintenance using drones was at U.K.-based low-cost carrier EasyJet, which began developing drones in 2014 for inspection work on its fleet of Airbus A320 aircraft. One year later, it completed its first check for lightning strikes on one of the narrowbody aircraft at its Luton base. To negate concerns about collisions, an oft-cited argument against using drones for inspection work, the device’s avionics system was programMed to ensure it stays at least 1 meter (3.2 ft.) away from the aircraft it is inspecting.
EasyJet is one of the few airlines to publicize its work with drones, but the technology has yet to become a regular fixture of the world’s airlines. Despite their slow adoption rate, drones are being considered at other carriers’ technical divisions; Cathay Pacific and Air New Zealand are eyeing automated robotics for aircraft inspections.
Are Airlines IoT-Ready?
According to air transport information technology (IT) and communications specialist SITA’s Airline IT Trends Survey published in 2015, 86% of airline respondents said IoT will deliver clear benefits during the next three years, improving the passenger experience at check-in and luggage collection, for example. The report also suggested IoT has become increasingly prioritized in recent years, with 37% stating they have budgeted for investment. Airline maintenance divisions appear to be taking the lead, with 57% of respondents deploying tablets to MRO technicians, compared with just 32% who deployed tablets to cabin staff.
Yet while there is clearly innovation in the sector through the adoption of wearables, voice-activated technology and, potentially, drones, questions remain over whether airlines are maximizing the true potential of IoT. Lufthansa Technik’s Sachs believes carriers are aware of IoT’s value but are uncertain about how to proceed. “The majority of airlines complain that they know there is an intrinsic value in their data but they don’t know how to harness this,” he says. Sachs also points to regulatory factors as potential roadblocks. “Compared to other industries where there is much more progress and openness, commercial aviation [has a glut of regulations] that can make it difficult to utilize onboard data,” he says.
Graham Grose, aerospace and defense center of excellence industry director at software specialist IFS, which develops IoT applications, agrees there is strong will from carriers to capitalize on all that IoT offers, but now they must find ways to adjust their setups to reap the benefits. “Airlines are no longer looking for the case to invest—that case has been made, but what they’re looking to do is realign their business models to reflect the opportunities IoT brings,” he says. Nevertheless, Grose remains optimistic on the long-term prospects of IoT in aviation. “In the future, as IoT technology matures and becomes more affordable, we’ll see a huge uptake in airlines looking to further benefit from connected devices and automated data capture.”