The Aerospace and Defence sector has a deserved reputation for being early adopters of new technology solutions for servicing and maintenance. True to form, ground breaking developments in Wearables and Context Aware technology are expected to streamline maintenance operations in the sector and empower the supply chain. In Part One of this two-part feature, Brendan Viggers, product and sales support at IFS Aerospace & Defence Centre of Excellence, explains the potential.
Aerospace and Defence support, whether that is maintenance, engineering, supply or transportation, is complicated by the challenges of distance from the home base, environmental and operating pressures, and even cultural constraints in deployed operating areas. Maintenance in the field is very different from at the depot or base.
Maintenance activity requires, as a basic minimum, the right information and technical support with the right functionality to support operations, so it is a no-brainer that this needs to be tailored for the environment where the maintenance is taking place. For many years vendors have deployed solutions forwards that are manifestly complex, full enterprise solutions on mobile devices.
But in-field maintenance bears little or no similarity to that back at base, the environment is unique and often extreme. Time pressure is often increased for field engineers who have to meet tight turn-round schedules, and have the right technical documentation and direction to hand, dependent on the task and time. In unique, and often restrictive, maintenance environments full enterprise solution functionality can become a hindrance to field engineers - tailored functionality for the specific environment is critical to meeting operational deadlines.
The need for tailored information and functionality
Speedy resolution of unusual problems can be massively enhanced if equipment and those in support can understand the multiple contexts the field engineer is encountering. These include 'user' context such as the user’s profile, location, people nearby, even the current social situation; 'physical' context such as lighting, noise levels, traffic conditions and temperature; and 'time' context such as time of a day, week, month, and season of the year at the deployed location; and finally an 'operational' context to monitor elements such as spare part availability and the maintenance task at hand.
The relationship between wearables and context aware applications is symbiotic.
Wearables can sense the user's physical environment much more completely than previously possible, and in many more situations. This makes them excellent platforms for applications where the computer is working even when you aren't giving explicit commands. Future developments will introduce increased use of solutions that will automatically tailor their presentation and operation through recognition of the maintenance environment it is in.
Context Aware and Wearables in action - Civil Aviation
In the base environment, there are opportunities for application of the technology across production, quality assurance, safety, warehousing and logistics - for example, wearables can increase worker agility. Supporting the location of faulty wires or equipment on a grounded aircraft, and notifying workers about hazards such as the presence of other activities being conducted on the aircraft, are areas that could be addressed right now. Boeing is currently experimenting with augmented reality for aircraft maintenance, a hands-free device instructs workers where to ﬁnd a product in the inventory.
This could be extended to giving mechanics virtual 'sight' of components hidden behind other systems or structures relative to their personal location - allowing them to remove, fit or adjust a component that they cannot physically see.
The instant effect on maintenance repair and overhaul (MRO)
Wearables with augmented reality have the potential to automatically identify the spare part required by a field engineer. Information on the appearance, known context and maintenance task required can then be fed through to the engineer's wearable device negating the need to barcode scan or consult technology documents in difficult maintenance environments - such as a dark submarine bilge or the underbelly of an aircraft - where movement is limited. It also removes the requirement for the intimate support of a base supply chain and logistician. This comes with the added bonus of not having to trek kilometres across an airfield to access catalogues in a maintenance hangar or planning office.
With context aware and wearable technology cross-matching bar codes, stock or part numbers - or even better integrating with electronic technical documents - the engineer can ensure that the right item is demanded or fitted, with the benefit of reducing time consuming document and database searches that introduce a greater opportunity for error. Increased autonomy thanks to wearables and context aware computing means the maintenance engineer spends less time 'downing tools' to consult collateral material, improving overall MRO efficiency.
Expertise on demand
Wearables can also be used for maintenance, repairs and over-the-shoulder coaching for remote engineers. Cargo and maintenance personal from a major airline have trialled the use of an optical head-mounted display (OHMD) to help inspect aircraft on the tarmac. They capture video and photos and send them to a central oﬃce where technical safety professionals assess an aircraft’s condition.
IFS is working with XM Reality to bring forward a remote expert to assist in complex maintenance to broaden the capabilities of maintenance engineers on the ground - 'augmenting' flight-line workers' skills. IFS believes adding cognitive applications and voice-controlled intelligent agents similar to Siri to wearable devices would further augment such workers' skills, helping them identify and act on speciﬁc problems with more autonomy.
Look out for Part Two of this feature which takes a closer look at the role Context-Aware mobile apps will have in achieving wider deployment of wearables.