"Hey! This is Your Airplane Talking to You!"

Innovative aircraft health monitoring (AHM) systems have taken the aircraft from an inanimate, reactively maintained object to become a fully-fledged flying CPU delivering detailed data to drive predictive, customized maintenance.

It used to be that when something wasn’t working quite right on an airplane, the technician would open up the area, look in and find the part they thought was causing the trouble, replace the part, and send the aircraft back on its way. Savvy troubleshooters knew what they were looking for and the general performance diameters (cycles or life averages) causing the components to be removed and replaced were based on generic data.

Many of today’s new aircraft fly with a central server on board, gathering data about the performance of various components on the plane, and putting together an interesting story for the ground engineers and OEMs to proactively and quickly troubleshoot before an event happens that could take that aircraft out of service.

While heavy maintenance per se will not likely go the way of the dodo bird, it is generally accepted in the industry that its footprint and type of maintenance performed during those checks is dramatically changing. Having all the performance data about a particular aircraft prior to planned downtime allows the operator to customize the check contents specifically to that tail number.

“We have a program ready which enables us to make the dynamic planning with the individual check content,” says Sebastian GIljohan, teamleader innovation at Lufthansa Technik. “But this needs regulatory agency approval, so this may take a bit longer to realize” as a shift in the way we’re working.

Both Boeing and many airline operators see this as an opportunity for industry members to lobby the respective agencies and OEMs to adjust their performance criteria thresholds from theoretical averages or generic hours/cycles to actual conditioned-based maintenance based on all the data being generated.

“FARs lack the technological advances available in 2013. They contain limitations and theoretical development from the 1960s,” points out Frank Stevens, director of engineering at Republic Airways Holdings. “As an industry, we, (the operators), have to push this type of technology and say, “These advances are good for the industry and the public. Our regulators need to champion the efforts to provide updated regulations allowing operators and OEMs to take full advantage of new technology. The technology helps us make safer and smarter decisions. Let’s learn from this and advance our maintenance programs.”

Helpful innovation

“Aircraft health management was driven initially for the customer benefit,” says Linda Hapgood, program manager for Airplane Health Solutions, Boeing Commercial Aviation Services. “They helped us design the system to help them minimize their operational costs and manage unscheduled maintenance.” AHM started with enabling the aircraft to be the CPU and being able to have a real-time picture of how the systems were working while making real-time adjustments.

While technology exists that allows maintenance troubleshooting traditionally performed onboard the flight deck to be performed now from quite a remote distance, for safety and regulatory reasons, the majority of the troubleshooting is still done in the shadow of the aircraft. “If you’re opening and closing digital circuit breakers and performing BITE tests where you could be moving surfaces of the aircraft and you’re not right there,” to see it, Hapgood points out, “if someone gets in the way,” it could potentially be dangerous.

“While the vision of a remote mechanic is becoming realized through technology, we foresee the result as an acceleration of teaming the technician on the ground with a remote team in an operations center. This teaming via the use of real-time data and remote access to aircraft information will speed up the diagnosis and decisions that get the aircraft out of the gate and on its way.”

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