Digitized manuals, PCs, laptops and iPads. What’s next for the busy maintenance technician or engineer? Wearable devices might save some carrying, but technicians still need hands and fingers to operate them. So how about voice-controlled personal electronic devices?
They’re not here yet, but they may be coming soon. Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon offer voice-controlled assistants for busy consumers. Now IFS Labs, the part of a $400 million-a-year Swedish company that makes enterprise resource planning (ERP) software for aerospace and other industries, has designed a mobile app, Intelligent Personal Assistant (IPA), that lets users control IFS applications by voice, via smartphone or tablets.
“Voice recognition is the next stage in mobile app enhancement,” argues Kevin Deal, vice president for aerospace and defense at IFS North America.
Technicians often work in cramped conditions or places with poor lighting—sometimes wearing protective apparel. Freeing up hands with voice control for tablets or other devices would be a big relief and could speed up difficult tasks.
Technicians could use mobile apps to access data such as repair manuals, asset histories and records of repairs performed. Current devices can display this data in easy-to-understand interfaces, and wearable computing may bring even easier, head-up displays to the maintenance line. But technicians still need fingers to request information, select data to be viewed, enter requests for more information and order parts.
“Voice-control technology enables us to send instant messages, change TV channels, alter thermostats,” Deal notes. “Why not aircraft maintenance?” Benefits include quicker parts orders, faster searches for information and more rapid turnaround times. Techs on flight lines could orally report tire pressures or other conditions on aircraft and have reports automatically checked against specifications. Hangar mechanics could orally request the quality, status and lifespan of any part, then check the availability of spares.
IPA is still in development, and it works only with IFS’s ERP. Deal says the tough part is not voice recognition but anticipating questions techs will ask or information they will enter. Deal understands the complexity of maintenance. IFS makes the ERP used by the FAA for maintenance on the agency’s own small fleet of aircraft.
IPA could be used with many devices, current and future. More powerful devices, like Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4, might offer more functions.
But is voice recognition and control accurate enough to satisfy tough regulatory requirements? That probably depends on what it is being used for. If a technician uses voice to navigate through the maintenance system and request information, it is like typing or clicking. In either case, if a mistake is made or instruction misunderstood, the technician simply tries again until the right information is found.
At the other extreme, if voice recognition is asked to validate the identities of mechanics or supervisors signing off on a repair job, it would have to be extremely accurate. Deal thinks current voice-recognition software is accurate enough to save technicians a lot of time but not yet reliable enough to meet the sign-off standards.
In any case, major MRO providers are very interested. Jennifer van Horn, manager of the Moonshine Program at KLM E&M, says any sensors that interact with the human senses of sight, hearing, feeling, smell and speech will help mechanics. This includes voice-controlled devices that work with mobile solutions or anything else that transforms voice into text or commands. A mechanic “will thus have his hands free, which will save time and allow him to stay focused on the particular activity he’s involved in.”
The technology is thus on KLM E&M’s “wish list.” Van Horn believes voice-control technology itself is ready. “Our challenge will be to connect it to systems and components that actually respond to the voice,” he says.
Apart from connecting, the main challenges may be background noise and limited bandwidth during transmission where transmission is required. “Also, voice control might lead to a redesign of current reporting systems, since we will have to ensure that the words spoken are the words received,” van Horn notes.
Lufthansa Technik (LHT) is also monitoring voice technologies but not developing its own products for the time being, a spokesman says.
Honeywell has developed a solution called Vocollect Voice Solution for Maintenance and Inspection. It has been tested by LHT in inspections of auxiliary power units.
Indeed, voice control for maintenance techs may come along with voice control for other airline staff. SITA Labs is not working on voice-controlled devices, but Chief Technology Officer Jim Peters says: “Voice recognition and Natural Language Processing are technologies now reaching a state of maturity where we will see applications for them in many aspects of our personal and business lives.”