"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.

Dave Bowman: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

HAL: I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

With the computers doing more and humans needing to do less onboard, some people are having flashbacks to this scene from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” where the HAL 9000 computer takes over control of the space station. While we’re not to that stage yet, many have a fear of automation. “I think people are encouraged about what the airplane can do, but are leery about letting it go,” Stevens ponders. “They’re still a little bit leery to say, OK, I have everybody’s lives in my hands, but if I’m not watching it, who is?”

Many aircraft, particularly in the military sector, have become so automation-integrated, that they are virtually impossible to fly without computer assistance. And that goes right down to the maintenance, as well. Not only has the defense sector mandated condition-based maintenance on their new aircraft programs, they’re implementing sensors all over the aircraft, including structural monitoring devices.

“With the ability to send a low current through the airframe, it repeatedly measures the aircraft to determine how or when a crack, dent, or scratch happens and returns a signal to the computer with the location and extent of the damage,” Stevens says. “I would love to see this type of technology in the civilian sector. There are many maintenance tasks that require five hours to open an area for a two-minute inspection task.”

While the aircraft of today have significantly changed in the past 10 to 20 years to assist the operator in predicting events, reducing downtime, and finding the true cause of a problem, many in the industry still see it as just a start. “Will the technician of the future wear Google Glasses or special contact lenses that help them see through the fuselage?” asks Boeing’s Hapgood.

In an upcoming issue we’ll explore this subject more in depth.

Karen Berg is a 27-year veteran in the aviation industry, starting at Northwest Airlines in 1986 in leadership positions before joining KLM Royal Dutch Airlines in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. More recently, she served as VP Sales North America for Air France Industries and KLM Engineering & Maintenance.

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