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How IoT technologies are disrupting the aerospace and defence status quo

The recent temporary shutdown of Delta Air Lines clearly demonstrated the cost of having aircraft grounded. “Aircraft on Ground” (AOG) time is a crucial factor for the airline industry – every second is vital, as any time that a plane is not in the air, it is not making money.

Airbus China estimated that a grounded A380 Airbus costs $1,250,000 every day; and when you consider the implications of this for an entire fleet, the scale of the issue is significant.

However, new technologies are starting to come to the fore in the quest to solve this core industry issue. While there is no single silver bullet yet, the meteoric rise of connectivity, innovations around the Internet of Things (IoT), and the application of big data analysis could hold the key. For instance, the technology used to monitor an aircraft’s performance has developed rapidly in recent years. Sensors monitor a wide range of vital parameters throughout the systems and sub systems of an aircraft, and can be used to notify ground staff of primary system failings during a flight and provide important maintenance information once the plane is grounded.

But what does the future hold and could progression in this technology hold the key to solving this fundamental issue? Here, I explore how the performance monitoring space has evolved, looking at current solutions, imminent developments and the range of disruptive technologies throughout the supply chain that could transform the industry.

The current applications of IoT – data analysis to reduce maintenance times

AOG events are incredibly costly and can cause major disruption to operations, often leaving fleets grounded for significant periods of time. This not only damages the airline’s reputation, but also that of the manufacturer, to provide reliable and available fleets. With operators under pressure to streamline their costs and increase their revenues, it is critical for airlines and OEMs to find solutions in aircraft maintenance procedures to keep AOG events at bay.

The current available solutions do go some way to combatting the problem, but more needs to be done. At the moment, sensors are installed throughout the aircraft, monitoring key performance parameters such as fuel burn in the engine. When the flight has landed, this information can be downloaded and analysed by the ground staff, enabling appropriate action to be taken to correct any minor faults or make alterations and get the aircraft back in service.

Only five years ago, such post-flight analysis may have taken many people many days to complete, whereas now there are solutions available that are providing useful maintenance data within minutes of a plane landing. These advancements that have been made in data analytics are commendable, and have already transformed how aircraft performance is assessed. But there are limitations to the current approach.

While some vital parameters can be monitored, there is still a significant amount of information that needs to be gathered and assessed once the plane has actually landed. The next frontier is to achieve this same level of insight while the plane is still airborne.

Predicting AOG events in real-time

When looking at solutions that could reduce or even eradicate AOG time altogether, the focus needs to shift from reaction to prediction. The prospect of maintenance crews and ground staff having a constant real-time stream of all this information while the plane is still airborne is very exciting.

Of course, the more data made available to ground staff, the more informed the decision making process will be in ascertaining firstly, what the issue is, and secondly, whether it is a problem with one particular aircraft, or an entire fleet. 

While current solutions only permit the airborne transfer of data for key vital parameters to maintenance crews, expanding this remit would allow them to determine the continual status and performance of individual parts and components within the engines, systems, and subsystems across the wider aircraft. This continuous visibility of the aircraft’s performance is crucial. If, for example, one of the engine vitals fails mid-air, a standby system would kick in and run all of the necessary functions to enable it to complete its journey safely. An alert would then be sent to the ground staff, who could use the real-time information to determine the cause of the failure, before engaging the necessary personnel and sourcing the components required to get the aircraft back up and running as soon as it lands.

Getting all of this preparation done while the aircraft is still in flight would help any airline to reduce AOG incidents and maintenance costs. While there is still work to be done, this could be a reality in around five years’ time.

Harnessing IoT to drive revenues across segments

Ultimately, these Internet of Aircraft Things solutions will lead to increased revenue for manufacturers, OEMs and even operators. Bombardier, for example recently announced that it has signed an agreement with Pratt to use their eFAST Health Monitoring System on the CSeries aircraft. Bombardier can boost its profits by receiving data on the real-time performance of its engines, so that it can adjust the way that planes are flown and take care of potential issues before they become real problems that end up grounding airplanes.

The other major players are also on the same path when it comes to embracing the Internet of Aircraft Things. The new generation of GEnx engines started pumping 5 to 10 TB of data per day. GE expects to gain up to 40 per cent improvement in factory efficiencies by the application of IoT and Big Data Analytics. Rolls Royce collects similar amounts of data from 12,000 engines across the globe in its data centres.

While engines are leading the charge and embracing the IoT and data generation, avionics systems are having to catch up to this trend. Traditional avionics systems transfer data up to a maximum of 12.5 KB/s whereas Boeing 787 Dreamliners and A350s are using Ethernet-based, next-generation aircraft data networks, called AFDX that allows up to 12.5 MB/s. This makes it quicker and easier to transmit the information from avionics systems to the maintenance teams on the ground about current flying conditions, as well as any faults that have occurred during the flight.

Maintenance through the eyes of the future technician – the rise of wearables

As a by-product of the rise of IoT, we are seeing a surge in the adoption of connected wearable technologies, particularly in aerospace MRO. IDC estimate that 101.9 million wearable devices will be shipped in 2016, compared to 79 million last year. But, while there are examples of this technology already in use, there are huge future benefits to be realised through the aerospace supply chain, and this area is yet to deliver on its true potential.

So how would this work in practice? Smart glasses worn by engineers working on engines could be used to transmit images of the aircraft to maintenance specialists for assessment, and immediate consultancy could be given. In turn, information could be fed straight back to the engineer on the ground in real-time. The capabilities of hands-free smart glasses also allow for all this data to be recorded to assess further issues down the line.

This technology could drive huge improvements in efficiencies and safety and reduce human error. For instance, Honeywell’s technicians have been using voice recognition software when stripping down turbine engines and APUs for overhaul – leaving them able to enter engine data hands-free. It has the potential to reduce the complexity and workload for operators and as a result, uptake of this very powerful tool is only going to increase.

Challenging the status quo

For decades, the aerospace industry has had to live with AOG as an inherent problem in commercial flights. But technological advances could debunk the status quo here. Soon, thousands of sensors will be embedded in each aircraft, allowing data to be streamed down to the ground in real-time. And who knows, in time, this could drive the famous black box to simply become a backup device!

With advancements in the speed and capacity of data transfer from airborne aircraft to ground staff, and a continued progression in the analysis of this information; manufacturers, OEMs and operators hold the key to unlocking new revenue streams and significant reductions in maintenance times.

Companies throughout the supply chain must engage with this new technological wave if they are to tackle the issue of costly AOG.

Bhoopathi Rapolu, Head of Analytics EMEA, Cyient

Image source: Shutterstock/gudron