Working in a virtual world

Working in a virtual world
Working in a virtual world

Aircraft maintenance is a complicated task. Ed Hill hears how applying digital imaging technology could assist technicians in the future.

The old adage ‘Seeing is believing' is being given a new dimension by a consortium of UK SMEs aiming to bring the advances in virtual reality and digital imaging to the MRO business.

The group, supported by the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in Sheffield, is developing what it calls the Aircraft Maintenance Repair & Overhaul Configuration Capture System (AMROCCS) designed to use imaging technology to help aircraft technicians carry out maintenance tasks more efficiently and safely.

Along with the AMRC, the consortium is made up of five SMEs: Advanced Aerospace Assembly, Argenta Europ (www.argenta-europ.com), Intoware (www.intoware.com), NCTech (www.nctechimaging.com) and Serious Games International (www.seriousgamesinternational.com). The £1.3 million project is also part funded by the Aerospace Technology Institute and Innovate UK.

Four Primes comprising BAE Systems, Autodesk, Marshalls and Siemens, also act as strategic board members to help guide the consortium through the process of developing the 30-month project.

Mike Drummond, commercial director at innovation consultants Argenta, explains: “The best way to clarify what we are doing is to describe a scenario. A technician wearing a Wi-Fi-connected headset ‘sees' a repair that is needed, diagnoses the fault, consults online expert engineers, has access to exactly the parts and tools needed, receives training and structured work instructions and, when finished, knows the record has been updated, supervised and signed off digitally.”
The system could be used for a wide range of maintenance tasks, from replacing components on an engine or landing gear to dent analysis of the fuselage.

Advanced assistance

It is intended to support maintenance engineers in a number of ways. Firstly the virtual or augmented reality can be used to train an engineer before they actually carry out the work for real on the aircraft.

Secondly the system could be used to give what is described as guided maintenance i.e. using prepared support to take the engineer through the task step by step.

Finally a third element described as “straight to expert support”, would involve a technician being put in contact with a specialist back at headquarters or an OEM or Tier 1 company and instructing them live on the shopfloor on how to complete the repair.

“You can imagine that sometimes aircraft, particularly military ones, can end up in some pretty remote places, so the technician could have a link straight back to the expert technician, especially if he encounters something out of the ordinary,” says Drummond.

Importantly, the virtual or augmented reality that is created for the engineer has to be useful, contextual, intuitive and accurate so that when engineers are supported by digital 3D content they are comfortable and more efficient using it.
The project is exploring using digital image capture, including scanning, to create realistic environments for repair planning, as well as to replicate photorealistic 3D models of components.

Trimming turnarounds

The main aim of the system is to improve the quality of MRO operations and reduce the amount of ‘off aircraft time' that makes up a maintenance task when engineers are not actually carrying out the repair. Off aircraft time can consist of number of elements; paperwork, sourcing the correct part, simply walking to and from the maintenance bay to a computer workstation or part inventory. According to Drummond it is estimated that only 43% of the time when carrying out a maintenance task is actually spent ‘on' the aircraft. The AMROCCS system is designed to significantly increase this.

“With AMROCCS a maintenance task can be much better organised. Proper workflow instructions would be available before the technician carries out the task; parts could be already sourced and available. Additionally if several repairs need to be carried out, the workflow instructions would show the best order to do them in to minimise the time that is needed to complete them all.”

Keeping repair time to a minimum is very important for airlines, especially if unforeseen repairs are needed, as they can be penalised for delays in flights and forced to pay compensation to passengers.

“That figure adds up so any incremental time that can be made up during turnarounds helps to reduce costs.”

The AMROCCS system would also allow major, high value servicing tasks be undertaken more efficiently.

The system has benefits for airlines not only by sending repair instructions to technicians but also by capturing real time data on individual aircraft or components that can then be inputted into their own existing MRO IT systems.

“This is where the configuration capture part of the system is very useful. Because of its history when an aircraft comes in for maintenance, it is very likely that alterations will have been made from how it was when it left the factory. We can use cameras, digital scanners and 360° imaging systems to quickly capture and create a digital representation of that aircraft or of the component being examined and feed that back for the company's own data.”

Drummond is keen to point out that the system is intended to be as compatible with MRO operator's existing IT and Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) systems as possible.

“We are creating something that is platform agnostic. It can then also work as an additional gatherer of data from all the tasks that are being completed. It can also be fed back into the modification design process.”
<Flexible tech>
This flexibility is something that will also apply to the hardware that operators on the shopfloor utilise. For example, the system does not have to rely only on wearable technology, according to Drummond, the full potential, which is not yet realised, is currently available from commercial products.

“The overall vision is that the tools that people use within AMROCCS can be relatively inexpensive, such as iPads or mobile phones. Airline maintenance operations are already beginning to use things like iPads and tablets, so the engineer could walk up to the aircraft and the tablet would display what needs to be done or capture an image with its lens. As these types of hardware get better we expect they could be used in most situations.”

I ask if this new system could be seen as a threat to maintenance engineers by de-skilling their role and overriding expertise gained on the job.

Drummond asserts: “We want to create something that will help engineers rather than add another layer of complexity to an already difficult job. They don't want that and neither do the airlines and MRO providers. We are consulting and trialling the system with engineers and with our strategy board members as the project develops.

“We are always considering the human element and by using rapid prototyping we can quickly react to the input from engineers during consultations.”

The system could also help to reduce unnecessary maintenance tasks being carried when components still have a useable life in service.

“It could assist the trend towards prediction based maintenance as opposed to interval based maintenance, which regulations favour at the moment,” Drummond says. “Predictive maintenance i.e. doing the maintenance based on what is required rather than just changing a part because it has reached a certain number of flying hours is increasing. This has benefits because changing that part may also involve removing a wing or engine to gain access, for example, which can be very costly, especially if the aircraft is out of service for a long time.”

It's early days, but if AMROCCS is successfully developed it could revolutionise the way maintenance is carried out on aircraft. It could also be applied to other sectors where maintenance plays an important role such as railways, shipping or construction.

Drummond concludes: “This is primarily an aviation project but this technology has huge potential for any sector that involves high value maintenance. Currently we are at the initial technology demonstration stage. A lot of the scanning and imaging technology is already established, what is new is how we are combining that all together to create a new solution. Before the end of the 30-month project we will have a working demonstrator for people to see and at that point we hope to have potential customers and partners who will want to engage with us in taking it further.” Advanced Aerospace Assembly
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