Pushing the Envelope for Aircraft Health Monitoring and Maintenance Technology

Oct. 11, 2013

The inbound plane is 15 minutes out from the gate, so you pick up your tablet computer and touch the icon for that flight. It displays the performance data of that aircraft, and you see exactly what needs to be worked on while that aircraft is at the gate. A message pops up that a component also needs to be modified, and a video is available that shows you exactly how to do it. You quickly watch it knowing that you can look at it again through your Google glasses when you’re at the plane. Sound too futuristic? Many maintenance professionals are using some of these capabilities right now. And new technologies continue to be added, as the regulatory organizations review and approve the new way of working.

Unscheduled maintenance becomes scheduled

Receiving and analyzing data collected from aircraft systems performance is key to driving unscheduled maintenance to become scheduled maintenance for the newer Gulfstream aircraft. The goal is to increase the reliability and availability of the airplane. “On legacy aircraft, we perform an analysis retroactively, and we require manual data set downloads from our customers,” says Robby O’Dell, Program Manager for Gulfstream Aerospace. “We start having failures and then we retroactively try to request as much data in as we can to be able to analyze the issue. With the aircraft health and trend monitoring system, the data is transmitted automatically after each flight, so we have the capability to look at the data and analyze when it may trend away from normal. Knowing what happens intermittently during flight and which components to fix the first time saves the operator money, reduces their on-hand stock and turns replacements into a scheduled event.”

While the availability, reliability and cost efficiency goals remain the same across OEMs and operators, how they review and use their data still varies from between the operators or maintenance organizations. Republic Airways Holdings has an experienced person on staff, whose previous job was reviewing data from test flights, to interpret the data for the front line task cards. Other organizations, like Lufthansa Technik create user-friendly front-end software with intelligent algorithms for the health monitoring systems. “We need an intelligent system that just decreases the people management on this,” states Sebastian Giljohann, head of innovation management at Lufthansa Technik. “Work will be much easier for the mechanic, because the preparation will be less and they can focus on the real work doing things directly on the aircraft. The information will be better, he will also have tablets with films, diagrams, etc.”

At Gulfstream, they want the front line to have access to the data, as well. “We’re taking the groups that will be using the data and bringing them up to speed on how to use it. We want the person who’s actually working on the system to be able to utilize this new data set,” according to Ed Fischer, Product Support Program Manager for Gulfstream Aerospace. “Our technical operations crew is always available to discuss issues with customers, and they are actively utilizing the system to troubleshoot issues.”

Technicians reading binary code

But where does the mechanic of today and the future receive the training they need as well as learn to balance the hands-on aircraft maintenance with the health monitoring data? “Finding the technicians that have the skills to maintain the aircraft and that have the computer experience is difficult,” states Frank Stevens, Director of Engineering for Republic Airways Holdings. “Part of it is the training and it needs to start with changes to FAR Part 65 with respect to the basic mechanics training and certifications. We can’t continue to teach new technicians how to perform dope and fabric repairs; which is still part of the A&P today. We should require new technicians have the ability on how to read and understand binary codes and what all those 1s and 0s mean. There’s nothing in the general requirements for an airframe license that covers this new technology!”

Some airlines and MROs are starting to partner with aircraft maintenance training schools, to help develop the curriculum, sponsor scholarships, and recruit to meet the increasing demand for skilled aircraft maintenance technicians. There have been some articles in recent issues of Aircraft Maintenance Technology covering the aging aircraft maintenance technician global population, and looking at ways to get young people to consider this as an exciting career opportunity. But the numbers are still not keeping pace with the predicted volume of aircraft. And competition for the same types of recruits is still heavy from other related occupations, such as NASCAR and Indy race car circuits, to name a few.

The regulators

The governing regulatory bodies are also a concern about the pace of moving forward with the innovating technology. The ability to modify aircraft maintenance check times and content, based on actual performance data of components on the aircraft is trying to shift the paradigm from “one size fits all” aircraft general maintenance programs to customized checks for each tail number. Lufthansa Technik also sees checks based on areas of the aircraft or specific to a certain component chapter. “We will have a check time around everything, say like gears. Or maybe not just gears, but also hydraulics – and the work is “close by” [in relation to its location on the aircraft] so the time to prepare other work is decreased,” proposes   Sebastian Giljohann.

Boeing has seen some regulatory changes driven from the operator’s side:  “I think of the analogy with what we saw with iPads in the flight deck, says Linda Hapgood, Program Manager Airplane Health Solutions, Boeing Commercial Aviation Services. “There was no way that we would be allowed to have a device with airport maps in the flight deck, connected to the avionics systems” And here we are, we’ve got iPads and they’re not certified equipment, but providing fantastic data. It took a couple of airlines to push the envelope and push through the change in the industry.”

Which is where the airlines, supported by their MROs, and together with the data from the OEMs, will play a pivotal role in changing the way maintenance is planned and done today. With enough data to substantiate removals and component life, hard times could be expanded or eliminated all together. “ We have the capability to look at the data and analyze when it may trend away from normal,” states Robby O’Dell. “We are able to see if it was caused by the action of the pilot, such as setting the parking brake in flight which causes an annunciation. This allows Gulfstream to understand the root cause of the issue more quickly, if it is an operational one, as opposed to the failure of a component.”  

“Currently, we have a little room where we can change things and optimize, but for the big shifts, we need the discussion with EASA,” adds Sebastian Giljohann. “I think serious discussions will start in 1-2 years. Everybody is talking about it and working on the diagnosis and monitoring things. We need a different understanding in the future and what it means for the MRO business and how we do maintenance.”

Medical surgeons are now using Google glasses while they operate on patients to have access to additional information and see things they normally would have to step away from surgery to review. Can using these glasses and other data be far off for the maintenance technician?