In March, the FAA released a policy recognizing the value of remote technology for manufacturing and certification processes. Remote technology can streamline costs and optimize resources in the right environment. But what exists today, and how can it combine with digital solutions to assist operators and MROs going forward?
Aviation is a cautious industry, not known for embracing new, ‘disruptive’ technologies without years of use cases and regulatory support.
The paperless revolution is one example. The shift from paper documents, to dynamic systems and mobile devices is still painfully underway. A mix of paper and PDF documents is still common.
One theme that connects disruptive technologies is digitization. “All information needs to be in digital form, which remains a sticking point,” says Mark Roboff, general manager for digital transformation, Aerospace & Defence at DXC Technology. “The industry has seen many initiatives to speed this up, change has been sluggish over the last decade, and today there are still countless examples of paper-based processes in MRO.”
One wonders long it will take the industry to embrace remote technologies. Today, remote maintenance technology comes in many forms – some fully developed, others in infancy. The argument for remote tech is much the same as other disrupters; it promises more efficient, reliable operations and significant savings. It ranges from virtual platforms such as Microsoft TEAMS, to drones and augmented reality (AR) systems.
Yet along came Covid; the pandemic has turned aviation upside down, but aircraft still required maintenance. “Crisis periods are often an accelerator for new technologies,” begins Helene Druet, head of Marketing at Donecle. “The years to come will be challenging. Operators have to find savings, meaning a need to improve maintenance efficiencies.”
The onus is on managing labor effectively, reducing man-hours, and limiting mechanics’ movement. “Remote technologies are perfectly aligned with the new normal,” says Dinakara Nagalla, chief executive officer of EmpowerMX. “While it is still impossible to talk about complete remote maintenance – we still need hands touching the airplane – the new functions facilitate doing a lot of tasks remotely.”
The FAA’s policy PS AIR-21-1901 was the result of three years of work to create remote technology policy best practices. The regulator expedited implementation during the pandemic, to provide additional tools for FAA inspectors and engineers to conduct safety investigations and perform regulatory oversights.
While PS AIR-21-1901 is not applicable to airlines and MROs (only to FAA Aircraft Certification engineers, and manufacturing aviation safety inspectors), the regulator recognizes the value of remote technologies. Its Flight Standards Service has used a range of virtual tools such as Zoom, text and Skype during the pandemic. “In some ways, COVID-19 has enhanced flexibility in real-time communication between the FAA and the industry it regulates,” says its representative. “The FAA is realizing benefit in renewal of operating certificates for repair stations operating under 14 CFR Part 145 rules, particularly those overseas, and activities associated with General Visual Inspections.”
“We are able to review manuals, interview key personnel, audit records and perform myriad other tasks remotely,” they add. “Our inspectors are using remote technology to accomplish certification tasks of both organizations and individuals more so than in conducting surveillance of certificated entities. We will undoubtedly expand our use of remote technology as a supplement to methods.”
“Remote maintenance is a broad term,” says Roboff. “To me, the heart of the technology is augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) devices that are applicable for the MRO environment. These devices can provide solutions for remote expertise including training and non-routine (NR) assistance,” he explains. In addition, technologies that enable automation (such as robots performing aircraft inspections for a mechanic) are other popular interpretations of remote maintenance technology.
“Today, automation has a lead over AR/VR in the hangar,” adds Roboff. “There have been some successful, public use cases for using drones to inspect fuselages for cracks. The value proposition for this technology was not in removing workforce but in speeding up inspection time. It’s important to consider that any disruptive tech that has been bought to MRO’s primary purpose is to drive a speed up of turnaround time (TAT) and reduce AOG.” The onus is on robotics or systems assisting, not replacing, humans in performing a task.
Why is it needed now more than ever? “When we emerge from Covid the industry will be smaller,” Roboff continues. “On top of this, we’re looking at an evolution of a younger workforce and mechanics near retirement after being in the industry 20-30 years. We’ll be needing to train a younger, replacement workforce at scale and will need to do this effectively.” As will be explored, AR/VR can address the labour transformation of a shrinking industry.
Several areas in MRO directly benefit from remote maintenance technology. “The first two coming to mind are inspections and the interaction between the MRO and an airline’s technical representatives,” says Nagalla. In response to the pandemic, EmpowerMX launched its Touchfree Electronic Taskcard, which combines remote technologies with a mobile taskcard to allow direct streaming of calls and video technology onto an e-taskcard. “The range of activities, which can now be inspected from a distance, has increased thanks to remote technologies. Our customers, most notably JORAMCO in Amman, Jordan, have expanded remote inspections.
“In terms of customer technical representatives, right now there aren’t any activities they cannot perform remotely using our software. A typical rep can receive notifications on his or her mobile device whenever there are time and materials estimates requiring approval by the airline operator, adds Nagalla. “They can access a mobile app and browse through the technical details of the requests. The details may include pictures, videos, audio files and other documents substantiating the level of work requested.” The technical representative can also use the built-in video conferencing functionality from EmpowerMX to ask the MRO experts for additional clarifications. All these exchanges and transactions can be saved as part of the permanent task card record in the MRO system.”
Nagalla anticipates that COVID will lead to an increase in line operations being outsourced to independent providers. “For MROs taking over these activities, but most importantly for the airlines contracting their services, it will be beneficial to configure the operator’s maintenance information system to accept direct updates from the MRO system,” he says. This will allow remote overview for the airline. Digitization is once again a factor, however. “In some cases, this is complicated due to the legacy roots of the solutions used by the airline. We developed a universal interface connector (UIC) to provide this connectivity. Our UIC goes beyond connecting airlines and MROs using the same IT solution, and covers companies with disparate IT portfolios.”
Chris Clements, sales representative at Swiss AS agrees that managing contracted maintenance is one of the main challenges during the pandemic. “Having a Customer Rep on site to monitor aircraft is now problematic,” he says. “Managing these situations is where MRO software such as AMOS can bring benefits, allowing airlines to remotely assess progress.” Not only does AMOS enable paperless processes, but its standard interfaces allow work packages to be imported and updates exported at regular intervals via AMOSmobile/EXEC. “This allows the customer to have their own work package updated in their MRO software solution to continuously monitor progress. Combined with electronic signatures, and the ability to send findings to the appropriate person via AMOS, face-to-face contact is reduced.”
“The problem is the quality of data varies,” continues Clements. “The MRO needs to ensure the estimates provided by the airline on the work package – such as access time and man-hours – aligns with theirs. The MRO often needs their own means of tracking progress and makes finding a solution more complex.” Today, Clements explains it’s still common for MROs to print work packages onto paper, and add a barcode on each task to bill and track accordingly. “Hybrid efforts are also underway,” he adds. “We have customers that receive scanned PDFs of task cards and overlay sign-off blocks from their tablet.”
Aircraft structural repair and continuous monitoring are further areas of maintenance that benefit from remote technologies, and can be achieved through the use of drone and video-link capabilities. “Drones are one of the most effective methods of remote maintenance,” says Shiyas Asaf Ali, senior aircraft engineer. “This would actually help reduce maintenance time and provide more accurate interpretation of fuselage defects. Aircraft with poor tolerance of lightning strikes can use drones to identify and document defects on the fuselage.”
Founded in 2015, Donecle is one of the leading providers of automated aircraft visual inspections. The manufacturer of a fully automated drone specially designed for hangar environments, Donecle has signed with several customers including AFI KLM E&M, AAR, LATAM and Austrian. “The drones are being used for use cases from line and base maintenance up to paint wear evaluation or lightning strike mapping,” commences Helene Druet, head of Marketing at Donecle.
The drone does not need a GPS signal to navigate or operate. As such, it does not fall foul of the lack of GPS coverage that can hinder maintenance in remote areas. Instead, its position and tracking capability uses laser technology and pre-planned flight paths, while the system has its own encrypted WIFI network. “Creating our own drone allowed us to embed safety features such as obstacle detection and systems redundancy,” explains Druet. “Our sensor is mounted on a rotating gimbal to allow picture acquisition of the complete airframe, including upper surfaces, belly, under wings and so on.” These drones don’t just capture a standard image, however – it feeds through to an image analysis software to easily detect and locate damages on the aircraft surface. “Our solution also comes with a cloud platform to store data and reports,” she adds.
The drones utilized by Donecle allow both a ‘hands off’ approach to maintenance for its user, and reduces the need for more than one mechanic to undertake certain inspections.
Beside the ability to inspect the aircraft from the ground, is the complete view of the aircraft condition and remote access to data. “This has been the driving benefit Donecle has provided in recent months,” continues Druet. “For people working from home or not able to come on site because of travel bans, drones allows efficient collaboration between MROs and 3rd parties. Engineers can perform the inspection remotely based on the data captured by the drone at the hangar and then share inspection results with colleagues.”
For organizations with some digital capability, and who utilize M&E and ERP systems in conjunction with mobile applications and devices, a degree of remote collaboration can already be achieved. Utilizing popular methods of communication including Facetime and Whatsapp, available via mobile devices MROs can share video, audio and electronic information. These means of communication have now been part of day-to-day life for many years, which increases the confidence of companies to implement them.
“The ability to add video data to an e-task card for a fault, and establishing collaborative platforms are the least disruptive forms of remote maintenance, because they work with existing mobile technology,” says Dan Dutton, vice president R&D, Aerospace & Defence at IFS. It’s easy to see how a drone could feature in this process; feeding video into electronic task cards for departments to discuss remotely using a collaborative platform.
“We continue to work with vendors to offer customers ways of plugging remote inspection footage into their electronic task cards, facilitating damage analysis and, if required based on system configurations, save the video feeds as parts of the permanent compliance record,” says Nagalla. “In future we will see more video and audio conferencing as a way of promoting remote collaboration. When it comes to dealing with drone video footage the maintenance system needs to be able to receive the inspection feed via webservice and, upon user selection, create a finding or unscheduled task cards so it can be linked it to the high-resolution images and video, worked and corrected.”
IFS Remote Assistance
In response to the challenges faced by businesses during a pandemic, IFS launched ‘IFS Remote Assistance’ – a remote collaboration platform designed for maintenance teams to interact remotely. The solution uses augmented reality to overlay information on top of a live video feed to allow experts off-site to virtually guide on-site technicians through a repair process or troubleshooting activity. “Remote Assistance can be offered to any customer as a standalone option,” explains Dutton. Because it’s a cloud-based application, Remote Assistance is easy to deploy for new customers and requires no local infrastructure.
By merging two real-time video streams, mechanics and technical experts can share images and information in a merged reality environment. “Because of the format, using a platform such as Remote Assistance is not a culture shock to users, and therefore is directly valuable and easy to implement,” adds Dutton.
Maintenance in a Pandemic
Maintenance has remained essential, yet complex due to travel bans, social distancing, and shifting MRO requirements as aircraft are grounded. Heavy checks intervals are based on an assumed number of flight hours (FH) and flight cycles (FC). If an aircraft stops flying and goes into storage, this affects when some checks will become due.
IFS released a ‘Clock Stoppage’ extension to its Maintenix maintenance system. This allows airlines to meet business requirements of a storage program as directed by OEMs. “The clock stoppage solution applies deadline extensions to calendar tasks,” explains Dutton of IFS. “The intent of the clock stoppage caused by COVID-19 is to allow postponement of some maintenance program tasks as directed by the aircraft OEM while aircraft are under a storage/parked aircraft program.” The advantage to planning and MRO is a highly streamlined approach to adjust these maintenance parameters which allows customers to quickly plan for the reinduction and return to service of their parked aircraft once they are ready.
Ali explains that the need to park aircraft during Covid has raised significant maintenance challenges. “Primary challenges are preservation tasks which is basically covering the various access doors, inlets and engine inlets exhausts, sense lines etc,” he adds. “Since this is not a regular task being performed in an operational environment, it has many challenges of its own. Time taken to preserve/ de-preserve each airplane varies and eventually return them back to service means a series of tests which needs to be passed.” While in his experience airlines have not made significant changes to digital maintenance procedures since Covid, Ali says challenges created by the pandemic will accelerate digitalization in aviation.
Remote Collaboration is Vital During Covid
Digital solutions and processes allow airlines and MROs to take advantage of rapid advances in technology. They also provide them with MRO M&E software that is scalable, future-proof and provides the support needed to expand or provide different MRO services. The classic case-in-point is how forward-looking organizations have withstood the changes brought on by Covid pandemic, such as meeting social distancing and remote working conditions. By virtue of having mobile and paperless operations supported by digital technologies, organizations have been able to minimize the effects of disruptions brought on by Covid. Digitization will bring incremental benefits such as optimizing cost and the elimination of paper and non-productive tasks. However, remote collaboration is changing the way technicians work and paving the way for the future aircraft maintenance.
Aircraft maintenance is a collaborative task where technicians, engineers, tech services, stores and other departments work together to ensure safety of every flight. The technology and platforms they usually choose to collaborate with would be a phone call, email or any of the social media messaging apps. This makes it difficult for everybody to be on the same platform during work hours, as well as increases the burden to access multiple types of hardware while working on the aircraft.
Ramco says their Remote Collaboration tool which is integrated within their Mechanic Anywhere mobile app can solve this challenge. Within the app all departments in a company using Ramco’s M&E MRO Solution can interact with each other electronically using instant messages, screen share and even voice or video calls. “The Remote Collaboration tool can help a technician seek assistance from colleagues or supervisors and the technical services to review the latest revisions in an MPD or Task Card with the maintenance team,” says Ramco.
Through Ramco’s Remote Collaboration tool, the entire company is connected to each other on a single aviation ERP platform sharing ideas, discussing topics and completing work faster, thus improving overall operational efficiency.
Optimizing Digital Systems
Covid has provided a landscape that proves the benefits of digital and remote processes. Unsurprisingly, operators and MROs aren’t looking to invest or adopt new procedures right now. “They’re in survival mode,” says Ian Kent, product manager at Rusada. Rusada’s ‘Envision’, a web-based suite of modules, offers digital solutions for key areas of aircraft operations and maintenance.
“For most operators and MRO providers, making these investments can follow once they’ve weathered the storm,” Kent continues. However, Rusada has seen some clients utilize the downtime of grounded fleets to completely reassess their processes, with tangible, positive outcomes. Manta Air, a domestic tourist operator based in the Maldives, saw operations decimated due to the pandemic. With its ATR fleet grounded and staff unable to perform their regular duties, Manta seized the opportunity to evaluate how to maximize the use of Envision.
By gathering eight teams, each comprising eight people from different departments, Manta tasked each group to list the software each department uses. It then tasked the teams to investigate all the functions each department performed. “Every process was questioned and assessed,” explains Kent. “When it came to the engineering department, Manta realized they were using less than half of the capabilities Envision provides. This was due to some cultural resistance to change, as Envision was relatively new software to them.”
Manta saw the full potential their M&E system could provide and so contacted Rusada to arrange additional software training sessions (all, of course, remote). “Two months on, and their utilization of Envision was 87%,” adds Kent. “Manta pushed through the resistance to change and is now seeing the benefits, including greater efficiencies and leaner operations.”
Mixed Reality: A Virtual Mechanic
The ‘Hands-off’ side to remote maintenance could mean robots and drones performing inspections in time. However, it can also refer to mechanics physically handling less paper while in the hangar. Not having to rifle through documents while carrying out tasks or troubleshooting is a further means to increase labour efficiency, and a step away from paper processes. AR/VR is key to achieving this.
“We are seeing Virtual Reality already being used in areas like technical training and simulation of aircraft interior designs,” says Nagalla. “Augmented Reality, on the other hand, could be useful in maintenance environments where the proper hardware could be used to present technicians with actionable information and provide a portal for remote collaboration.”
Training will likely become an area that will hugely benefit from AR. According to Druet of Donecle, industry analysis anticipates the rising challenge of workforce shortage in the MRO World. “We need to motivate new generations to embrace careers in MRO, and implementing new technologies at work is one way to differentiate and attract people,” she explains.
Roboff of DXC outlines the use case for a ‘virtual mechanic’ built using augmented reality. “We’re talking a voice on a mechanics shoulder, and the ability to streamline manpower at a time it’s most needed,” he says. “This is where AR and VR comes into its own.
“Today, a mechanic carries out tasks while referring to maintenance manuals, essentially ‘reading and doing,” Roboff continues. While some might use an iPad to access the manuals, many still use printouts or books.
Adding a VR device to the process changes the dynamic. ““A component supplier recently undertook a study that showed mechanics spend 40-60% of their time looking at a paper manual to follow instructions,” explains Roboff. “A VR device such as the Hololens can eliminate some of that work by replacing the manual. However, overlaying instruction text via the Hololens is static, and the mechanic still has to physically read the text it provides.”
Roboff envisages a cognitive agent (CA) integrated with a VR device, which can convert text into speech creating a virtual technician for mechanics to utilize. “This becomes a conversation, rather than a one-way interaction between man and device,” he adds. This is particularly relevant for non-routine findings and faults in line maintenance, where isolating faults requires trial and error to diagnose. “The technician can respond back to call up the right next step,” Roboff explains.
Utilizing a VR device such as the Hololens means video can be captured. But before a CA is added the use case is limited. “AR/VR will really and only take off when it’s paired with the agent,” says Roboff. “The technology exists, but unifying data standards needs to happen to accelerate the process.” This will make the process of interfacing manuals another documentation from OEMs and airlines simpler. “To build an AR system, we have to convert PDF manuals into a format that can be digested by the CA, which takes time.” Moreover, AR/VR systems and devices remain relatively immature, and not designed for aviation operations. Roboff highlights in the case of the Hololens, the apparatus does not work well in large open spaces and natural light. The latest model, Hololens 2 offers improvement, but the hardware still needs maturity.
Dutton thinks the future of AR looks bright for MROs. “AR has radically improved over the past couple of years,” he says. “Increasing regulatory support now means airlines are open to working through the early challenges of adoption.”
Druet of Donecle thinks Covid has introduced new ways for remote systems to be useful. “We’ve seen the development of new use cases such as end of lease and all aircraft transition topics when lessor inspectors can’t physically go to the inspection,” she summarizes. “We expect more solutions working towards remote inspections and remote collaboration tools, therefore accelerating the digitalization of maintenance activities.”
Roboff’s hope is that now, with parked planes and less demand on resources to operate full services, operators might find now is the time to set aside investment and resources to dust off the filing cabinets and start to digitize. “Survivors will need to be agile,” he summarizes.