Mark Martin, Director, Aviation & Defence Business Unit, IFS, sets out four major technological developments that will help airlines meet new challenges and create new opportunities across the commercial aviation industry during 2018.

Despite longer-lasting aircraft, more durable engines and innovations in maintenance techniques, recent research has shown maintenance spending continues to increase. In fact, airlines now spend more money on maintenance than on fuel or crew. The need to cut maintenance, repair and overhaul costs is a pressing issue for airlines, as is the need to keep assets operationally available.

So how can airlines keep aircraft in the air while reducing maintenance costs?

Seeing double: Digital twins

Maintenance is one of the major contributors to aircraft operating costs. Flight delays and cancellations from unplanned maintenance cost airlines millions of pounds every year, not to mention the impact on customer satisfaction. Because of this, the minimisation of operating costs and optimisation of operational availability continue to be top priorities for airlines.

Digital twins, a state-of-the-art method of monitoring engines when in use, will help airlines achieve these aims. A digital twin refers to a virtual replica of a physical asset, like an aircraft engine, which can display how the engine is running to engineers on the ground while the aircraft is still in the air. These can then be linked to IT systems to help streamline and optimise maintenance processes and operational availability.

Doubling down on maintenance

To make this happen, engineers compile thousands of data points specific to each asset during the design and manufacturing phase of the engine. These are then used to build a digital modal that tracks and monitors an asset in real-time, providing essential information throughout an asset’s lifecycle such as engine temperature, pressure, and airflow rate.

By implementing digital twins and creating a virtual model of the asset, organisations can receive early warnings, predictions and even a plan of action by simulating ‘what-if’ simulations based on weather, performance, operations and other variables – helping keep aircraft in service for longer.

GE helped develop the world’s first digital twin for an airplane’s landing gear. Sensors were placed on typical failure points on the asset, such as hydraulic pressure and brake temperature, to provide real-time data and help predict early malfunctions or diagnose the remaining lifecycle of the landing gear.

Armed with this sort of data, engineers and MROs can compare data gathered by sensors on the asset to that of its digital twin, which can be put through the same paces the engine experiences as it takes off, flies through different types of weather and undergoes regular wear and tear. If the two data sets don’t match up, then a request can be put in for the engine to enter servicing.

According to IDC, companies that invest in digital twins will see a 30% improvement in cycle times of critical processes, including maintenance. In 2018, expect to see more benefits as the technology matures.

AI in the sky

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is invading the skies. A SITA report claims half of airlines surveyed will invest in AI and cognitive computing in the next three years, while a recent Aviation Digital Transformation survey saw 37% of respondents identify AI as a key area for investment.

One of the biggest opportunities for AI involves predictive maintenance. An Oliver Wyman report suggested that predictive analytics can help optimise maintenance planning and capacity by reducing the need for routine maintenance and only triggering repairs when needed – helping increase fleet availability by up to 35% and reduce labour costs by 10%.

AI is helping bring this to reality by using data from in-service aircraft to predict potential issues. These algorithms are learning to predict delays and faults, giving airlines, airports and MROs a better chance of avoiding them.

The ability to correctly predict the right moment to repair or replace a part is key to this approach – if done too far in advance, the benefits of longer usage are lost, but if done too late, unexpected failures can result in unavailable assets and lost revenue.

Airlines look to the cloud

But one of the main challenges facing AI adopters is that storing and analysing vast quantities of data can overwhelm IT systems. The next generation of cloud solutions are here to help process this data, meaning everything from predictive maintenance to in-flight performance and the real-time aging of the aircraft can be better tracked and understood.

Cloud solutions are a vital tool in the new aviation IT landscape, especially when dealing with scheduled and unscheduled aircraft maintenance. Having smarter assets and mobile devices wirelessly connected to store data in the cloud removes the need to physically store and process data on-site.

As digitalisation transforms business models in 2018, the application of advanced analytical methods from AI will no longer just be good to have – it will soon be business critical.

SaaS offerings make mobile deliver

Airlines aren’t just eyeing the cloud as an answer to dealing with AI – cloud services also go hand in hand with mobile solutions. Recent research of 200 aviation professionals found mobile computing is one of the top five areas identified for investment in 2018, with over 30% of respondents identifying mobile as being a key driver of digital transformation.

Software as-a service solutions are helping drive new efficiencies into commercial aviation operations, particularly for line of business needs such as line maintenance execution and planning. Previously airlines and MROs have been concerned about the amount of physical hardware they might need to adopt new technologies, but the transformation into a SaaS/mobile environment using tablets or devices and eliminating the cost of purchasing and managing on premise technology is proving to be attractive.

Cloud-based mobile solutions can be rolled out to the workforce with no physical installation required. Consequently, airlines can focus on the value they receive, not the infrastructure they need, removing a barrier to change.

Drones: An autonomous inspector calls

Some of the biggest improvements in maintenance techniques can be derived simply from engineers being able to take a closer look at everyday tasks, such as aircraft inspections – a task that drones will revolutionise in 2018.

Today, typical visual inspections of commercial aircraft can take up to 6 hours. Drones have the potential to cut this time dramatically while offering greater accuracy of checks – freeing up engineer time, reducing maintenance costs and improving safety.

Initial drone systems have already been used to enhance visual checks made by engineers.

Low-cost carrier easyJet has been trialling drones for known or unknown fuselage inspections for some time now and is looking to fully implement the solution for hail and lightning strike damage in 2018.

But developments are now being made to automate these inspections – not replacing engineers, but giving them better tools, ones they can deploy quickly with less planning and training.

Workers would still control the flight of the drone, but by using visual processing algorithms combined with enterprise IT systems means the drone can send work orders straight to the maintenance crew as soon as a fault is identified.

Safety first

But challenges remain, as drones must receive FAA approval for both outdoor and indoor flights. FAA Part 107 requires unmanned aircraft operators to ensure that aircraft and controls are fit for safe operation prior to any flight.

Regional regulations that change from country to country and state to state must also be considered, as do operational complications, such as security safeguards, communication with ongoing air traffic and airport authority approval to make sure drones are used safely.

Despite these hurdles, there is a growing opportunity for the industry as the benefits start to outweigh the challenges in 2018. In the U.S. for example, the UAS Integration Pilot Programme was recently announced, aiming to pair unmanned aircraft operators with state and local governments to safely expand cutting-edge unmanned aircraft operations. The programme will shape a regulatory framework that balances the benefits of drone technology while lessening the risks to public safety and security.

Commercial aviation leads the way

The aviation industry is at the forefront of innovation – IFS research confirmed that commercial aviation leads in the take-up of new technologies for digital transformation to overcome some of the industry’s greatest challenges. Airlines, MROs and other parties are constantly looking to make major improvements in operational processes and, although these technologies may be at the start of their aviation lifespans, the commercial aviation industry is fully aware of the benefits they will bring.