Tuesday, 11th August 2020

Aircraft maintenance data: a revolution in waiting?

Over the years, advancements in technology have been such that the ability to monitor, record, stream and analyse in-flight data has developed at a rapid rate. By Chris Knight, Senior Associate, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman.

Introduction – Data Takes Off

The figures are stark: an Airbus A320, first introduced in 1988, is built to generate approximately 400 parameters (or pieces) of data per flight. As the technological potential for data generation and dissection has increased over the years, this figure has increased to 1,500 parameters for the A330, 250,000 parameters for the A380 and to around 400,000 parameters for the most recent A350, representing a total 99,900 percent uplift in data transmission. Similarly, whereas the older Boeing aircraft produced in the low thousands of parameters of data per flight, this figure has risen markedly as newer models have rolled off the production line. Today, the B787 creates (give or take) 500 gigabytes – or 100 high definition films – of data per flight, and it is anticipated that the B777X, once in service, will generate a terabyte of data per flight (equivalent to the storage space on 1,498 CD-ROM disks).

Not only is this immense increase in data generation set to continue, but its applicability will likely experience a dramatic upturn in the years to come – whereas technically advanced aircraft currently represent about 10 percent of the global fleet, this is due to increase to 50 percent in the next 10 years. In turn, the possibilities will become ever greater for ‘predictive maintenance’ – the ability for operators to utilise data to detect early, and even pre-empt, aircraft maintenance issues, thereby saving time and potentially vast sums of money.

Meanwhile, blockchain technology and its possible revolutionary application to aircraft maintenance has been increasingly discussed of late. At its simplest, a blockchain is a type of distributed ledger that allows for data to be recorded, maintained and securely shared simultaneously by multiple interested parties. When applied in the aircraft maintenance context, there is a growing feeling that blockchain could be used to far more effectively record the service, repair, inspection and maintenance status of an aircraft, in what could well be a paradigm shift for the entire aviation sector.

Predicative Maintenance

Aircraft maintenance represents a significant operator expenditure, accounting for about 10 per cent of an airline’s operating costs. This equates to an approximate US$9 billion annual spend for the four largest US airlines alone. Crucially, maintenance issues are also responsible for nearly half of all flight delays, with further cost implications for airlines often flowing from this – it can cost an airline up to US$10,000 per hour for a commercial passenger aircraft to be grounded for maintenance, and that’s before any passenger claims and other amounts are taken into account. The ability to mitigate against such considerations could therefore result in significant savings for airlines; the answer – predictive maintenance. By harnessing the ever increasing amounts of information created mid-flight (the most modern aircraft currently have approximately 8,000 to 10,000 sensors in each wing), airlines should be far better positioned to determine when a part requires replacing. Furthermore, it should be possible for on-ground engineers to whom the data has been transmitted to start arranging for the necessary substitute parts many hours before the aircraft is due to land. The net effect – a dramatic upswing in maintenance efficiency and, consequently, fleet reliability.

A note of caution, however – as the amount of available data grows, and the value of that data becomes clearer, questions as to data confidentiality and ownership need to be navigated. For example, should the owner of the rights to the data be the aircraft titleholder, the leasing company or the airline, and will matters pertaining to confidentiality need to be reviewed afresh in light of the amount of entities that may be involved in generating, processing and reviewing the data?

Additionally, the advantages of predictive maintenance are not automatic. Whilst certain airlines are already embracing the technological possibilities (with several, for example, employing Airbus’ ‘Skywise’ operational improvement tool) the vast majority still have only limited capability to effectively filter, process and analyse the increasingly vast quantities of real-time information being produced. To realise the full benefits, data expertise and engineering knowledge will need to be combined with the developments in data generation and transmission. At its most advanced, this will undoubtedly – at some point in the near future – entail the use of algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) to identify maintenance problems (or, better still, potential problems) as soon as possible; proactive adoption of such analytical tools will be essential, it being almost inconceivable to envisage that it will be either cost- or time-efficient, or even realistic, for humans to be tasked with sifting through thousands of pieces of data on a per flight basis. While the likes of the Boeing Airplane Health Management System and the Airbus Aircraft Condition Monitoring System and AiRTHM programme already seek to assist airlines in performing this ‘sifting’ function, further evolution is inevitable, and uptake of AI in particular could be the next big ‘game changer.’

Aircraft Maintenance – A Role For Blockchain?

A commercial aircraft (integrated into which there are millions of parts) may be in use for up to 30 years and have five or six different owners during that time. Unfortunately, however, the majority of aircraft maintenance records are still paper-based. Given the thousands of records that are typically generated during the lifetime of an aircraft, invariably, the result can be (and often is) discrepancies, incomplete information and loss of documents. Not only can this lead to unnecessary repeated repairs, delays and unplanned expense, but possibly the biggest impact for an airline (both in terms of time and cost) is typically experienced at redelivery – given the context, it is little surprise that the records review is frequently the main cause of return delays. From a lessor/owner perspective, the issues are also of concern, not simply from a regulatory, compliance and aircraft remarketing perspective, but also because time spent verifying records can lead to the delay (or even collapse) of proposed aircraft transfers.

In an effort to try and move away from paper records, a number of airlines (albeit so far a minority), as well as certain Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and Maintenance Repair Organisations (MROs) have now turned to digital technology. GE’s AirVault product, and Boeing’s offering, ‘STREAM’, for example, both store and manage digital maintenance records for various operators, as well as lessors, MROs and others. Undeniably, this is a move in the right direction, however questions concerning the adoption of an industry-wide approach, and one in which all interested parties can access and view maintenance records simultaneously, still abound.

Could blockchain - a form of distributed ledger – be the solution? The reason lies buried in the very DNA of blockchain itself. In short, data is collected in ‘blocks’ and each block combines to form a single sequential chain. Unlike traditional data technology, different organisations are able to upload data to, and store data on, a shared database accessible by each stakeholder – for any given aircraft this could include the operator, the owner/lessor, the OEM, the MRO and (at the relevant time) any prospective purchaser. One reason for the fervour currently surrounding blockchain technology is that on each occasion addition to the chain is only possible following validation from all other participants, thus creating a trustworthy and transparent decentralised system. In addition, a central administrator is not needed to certify the accuracy of a transaction, and once a block of data has been verified and added to the chain, it cannot be reversed or altered, thereby ensuring data integrity by way of a secure encrypted audit trail. Given that the data is accessible on a common platform, the need for data reconciliation between parties is entirely eliminated.

Blockchain, therefore, has the potential to act as an immutable digital archive for the efficient and comprehensive storage of the manufacturing details, parts history, usage data and complete ‘back-to-birth’ service, repair, inspection and maintenance status of an aircraft, accessible by the entire network of relevant parties. Many believe that this, in turn, has the potential to significantly reduce costs associated with aircraft maintenance – any aircraft stakeholder should be able to instantly locate the up-to-date information they require by reviewing the relevant blockchain:

From an owner/lessor perspective, there are potentially clear benefits:

-issues in respect of the aircraft, engines or parts should be able to be clearly traced to a timestamped record of who performed an inspection and when;

-any likely lessor maintenance reserve contributions could be identified far earlier;

-actual monthly maintenance reserve amounts could be calculated shortly (or perhaps even immediately) following the last day of the relevant calendar month;

-the need for information requests to be made under leases, or for monthly or shop visit reports to be required, should be significantly reduced and possibly even eliminated should the application of blockchain take hold. As a result it is possible that lease provisions pertaining to the operator’s provision of maintenance information will be pared back going forwards; and

-the technical due diligence process on an aircraft sale should be a lot quicker.

From an operator’s perspective, the burden of maintaining and storing paper-based records or having electronic records maintained with different entities across separate platforms could be eradicated. Furthermore, blockchains combining parts installation, service history and utilisation could be used to optimise the serviceable life of a part, and to determine whether a component should be repaired or replaced.

And what of the wider potential application of blockchain in the aircraft domain? Whilst not the topic of discussion in this article, it has been suggested that distributed ledger technology could be rolled out to spheres including ticketing, security and identity verification, and passenger loyalty programmes.

Of course, there are still many challenges to the implementation of blockchain in the aircraft maintenance sphere – the fact that it is nascent technology for one, and the need for widespread use before its full potential is realised being another. However, the possible benefits are already starting to be explored by some in the industry. Lufthansa Industry Solutions has, for example, introduced a ‘Blockchain for Aviation’ initiative bringing together various entities to test a range of blockchain solutions. Aeron, a blockchain-based flight log and aircraft maintenance data platform has been launched. Accenture (in conjunction with Thales) is creating a blockchain platform aimed at tracking parts provenance. Honeywell recently launched a blockchain platform for the purchase and sale of new and used aircraft parts.

Conclusion – A New Dawn for Aircraft Maintenance?

The upsurge of aircraft in-flight data generation is set to continue apace over the coming years. If harnessed correctly, the potential positive impact on airlines could be considerable. In particular, predictive maintenance should enable operators to far more effectively monitor, and plan for the repair or replacement of aircraft parts. The net effect should be improved safety, fewer delays, less aircraft-on-ground (AOG) incidents, and likely significant cost savings.

Blockchain, whilst still a new technology, has the potential to transform how the manufacturing details, parts history, usage data and complete service, repair, inspection and maintenance status history of an aircraft are stored, updated and accessed. This could have far reaching benefits for operators, lessors, owners, financiers, MROs and OEMs alike. Although certain entities are now ‘dipping their toes into the blockchain water’, the key going forward will be whether the technology can garner enough widespread support in the aircraft community in order that its potential can be fully realised.

As society increasingly moves into a liminal space, it is important that the aviation industry can not only keep up, but forge ahead. Big data and blockchain could have the potential to usher in a new standard for efficiency, but while a rising tide lifts all boats, you have to be facing the right way to take advantage of a tailwind.

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