Wearable Computers: New technology boosts productivity in aircraft maintenance

April 1, 2004


New technology boosts productivity in aircraft maintenance By Barb Zuehlke

How can aircraft maintenance be done more efficiently, in less time, and more accurately? New technology in the form of wearable computers is one way.

Xybernaut, a company based in Virginia, is targeting different business sectors, aviation among them, with its computer innovations. What started as a project of putting technical manuals into a computerized form for the Army led to the idea of making information accessible to technicians while keeping their hands free to do the repairs.

In aviation, the reason why a carrier, manufacturer, or a repair station would want to use wearable computers is for productivity in the field, says Michael Binko, vice president, corporate development for Xybernaut. “It allows employees to do more in less time, more accurately, or in a safer environment. Those are the qualifiers for people choosing wearable computers.”

Some companies that use it on the aircraft maintenance side are Fed Ex in its Memphis, Indianapolis, and a couple other hubs, and American Trans Air (ATA). “They bring aircraft in on a regular basis to be maintained and what would typically take several hours is cut down significantly,” Binko says. “So if you multiply that out by how many aircraft they have and how many technicians, the results hit the bottom line pretty quickly and get noticed by the chief operating officer and chief financial officer.”

Xybernaut meets with prospective companies for an on-site audit to explain what’s available and to determine what the company would like to accomplish. “We help them to understand what we’ve invested in this architecture for doing different business functions, such as inspections and maintenance,” Binko says. “Then we’ll sit down with them and discuss their goals for their employees. Do they want them to turn 25 percent more planes in the same amount of time, is it to reduce errors in maintenance or repairs by a certain percentage, or is it to do better inventory management and gather a higher quality of data. All of those are good metrics for success but each customer has different hot buttons. We sit down with them, do a site audit upfront, and help them understand how wearable and mobile computing could be integrated into their architecture, without really throwing away the investment they’ve already made.”

Xybernaut has a community of value-added resellers, integrators, or application development companies that share their expertise in an industry sector like aircraft maintenance. It’s called Team Xybernaut and currently includes more than 125 companies. Companies such as IBM, Jouve Aviation Solutions, and MicroOptical are part of the team.

The products
Xybernaut started with the Mobile Assistant back in the late ’80s which is now in its fifth generation, MA V. Manufactured by IBM under Xybernaut’s patents, it’s the equivalent of a laptop or PC computer in a wearable form. The newest in the line is the Atigo. The Atigo is a dual purpose computing device. It’s a standalone computer with a full-color touch screen that is able to run an emulation session that can be stored on a server. This enables it to receive data as well as disseminate it. It relies on a network, whether wireless or hardwired, tapping into the Internet or intranet and then sending information back to the server.
MicroOptical Corp., based in Westwood, Massachusetts, offers an SV-3 eyewear viewer that works with Xybernaut’s Mobile Assistant V. The major benefit is allowing users to be hands free and head up. “The typical complaint we hear from the guys in the field, wearing gloves or fixing something in an awkward position, is that it can be very hard for them to access a PDA or computer,” says Tony Ho, director of business development, MicroOptical. “Equipment today is getting more complicated so there’s even more need to see information. We solved that problem by providing a mobile display. You have a productivity gain by having information right in front of the worker. It’s a new paradigm in productivity, instead of going back and forth to your computer workstation or calling someone on the phone, you have the information directly in front of you. The idea is to access information anytime anywhere.”

Jouve Aviation Solutions (JAS), Irvine, California, a leading data integrator to airlines and aerospace OEMs, offers a fully integrated, comprehensive information management solution and a full range of related publications services. More than 35,000 airline maintenance, engineering and flight operations personnel rely on Jouve AirGTI® technology for access to critical technical information. AirGTI Mobile is available on the Atigo and MA V computers, and delivers up-to-date maintenance manuals, wiring schematics, parts catalogs, and job cards to aircraft mechanics.

What they can do
Wearable computers save time. Typically mechanics go to a workstation or technical library and type in a part number and look for something on the web, write it down, and go back to fix things. Sometimes they try to memorize it but that doesn’t always work. If you’re holding a probe or doing a testing procedure, and you go get information you have to set it all up again. There is a productivity gain by having information right in front of you.

“This is really powerful,” says Joe Kemp, marketing manager, technical services, Jouve Aviation Solutions. “Not only can you go and do your troubleshooting, now with the Atigo unit, you can launch into maintenance, engineering, and materials management systems. You can do a query on a part, find out if it’s in inventory, and if not, you can make your requisition right there. That’s the capability it has.

“From a technology trend, I think a lot of companies want to go wireless,” Kemp says. “Wireless delivery of technical data is a good idea. The key is access to technical manuals, maintenance and engineering systems, and material management systems.”
“It’s something new, that we haven’t seen before,” Binko says. “If a technician is out in the field, they can describe in a 30-second sound bite what they’re seeing. Or if you have photos you could attach them to your form. That makes it very helpful for the next technician. Because more than likely it’s not the same technician that sees the plane the next time it comes in. It’s all about knowledge management, and delivery is the key return on that investment.”

What’s available AirGTI Mobile: Jouve software forms the basis for the mobile computing application. Initially offered on the Xybernaut Atigo L platform, it takes advantage of wireless connectivity to deliver up-to-date maintenance manuals, wiring schematics, parts catalogs, and job cards. Atigo L/T/M: These lightweight wireless computers from Xybernaut utilize Windows CE.NET and wireless communications through built-in CompactFlash (CF-IO) and PC card slots (PCMCIA Type II). Features include a 8.4-inch touch screen with 800 x 600 resolution and an internal rechargeable lithium-ion battery. SV-3/SV-9 eyewear viewers: The ergonomic eyewear viewers from MicroOptical provide a hands-free, head-up way to view data and enhance situational awareness. Sold with Xybernaut’s Mobile Assistant V. Mobile Assistant V (MA V): This lightweight wearable 500 MHz computer features a 60-key wrist-worn keyboard that can be configured with key commands for quick input. Comes with rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Windows 200, 98, XP, and Linux compatibility.