Although aviation is positioned at the forefront of high-tech engineering, the industry is moving rather slowly when it comes to aircraft maintenance. While new inspection techniques have improved damage detection and have sped up repair processes, the maintenance sector of aviation still largely relies on operator skills. However, new hardware and software developments have recently unlocked the door to automation and are predicted to have an impact on the aviation industry.
While robots will not take the place of mechanics when it comes to maintenance, four emerging technologies will help the future of aviation by reducing overall MRO costs for aircraft operators.
The emergence of robotics is said to have a new impact on aviation in the future, specifically when it comes to certain applications for engine fields and structural overhaul.
For example, single part repairs and carbon fiber machining are included in tasks that robotics can assist with. Miniaturization is also said to help with inspection in difficult areas and components to access, especially the engine.
An eye-opening development for miniaturization can be seen in Rolls-Royce’s recent announcement of a product consisting of 1-cm-long “swarm” robots that can crawl into the guts of engines and deliver feedback imagery. The company also has ambitions to include bug-like robots to remove and replace defective material found on parts. These projects have major hurdles to overcome, but are predicted to be operational in at least five years.
Other robotic announcements that are predicted to influence the future of aviation include drones and automated repair processes.
Additive manufacturing (AM) is emerging in the aviation industry and is said to be able to inspect, repair and replace parts. The advantages of AM in aviation include shorter lead times and lower inventory costs. AM also produces in-service feedback that allows for continuous improvement to both durability and performance.
Large MRO providers are starting to develop AM capabilities either in-house or through joint ventures. A typical starting point seen in the advancement thus far is non-loading-bearing cabin components that are printed in plastic.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is taking over in multiple industry, but has been a moot point in the aviation industry. This is because software advances cannot be beneficial until there are first hardware advances. While the impact of AI specifically on aviation as a whole cannot be predicted, it is undoubtedly true that AI will greatly impact machine operations, which in turn will have a domino effect on MRO.
The future of AI in aviation is currently still in muddy waters, but it is clear that it will at the very least have a great impact on maintenance planning.
The growth of connectivity and cloud-based resources has made it possible to make simple tools smart. By combining machine learning with advances robotics, new tools for maintenance providers are being created. With the addition of human skill added onto new tools, the chances of greater benefits are likely.
Currently intelligent machines that are already in limited use are virtual reality applications that aid in training engineers. Augmented reality systems are also currently being used to improve situational awareness, and to help declutter workspace and improve performance. For example, Anytime Assets has created an RFID-enabled asset tracking system that automatically can check tools in and out of the toolbox, as well as locate them if they have gone missing – which all helps to prevent FOD.