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The new data dawn in aircraft maintenance

Thu 2 May 2019 | Chris Knight

With a little help from blockchain, predictive maintenance is set to reach new heights – but the data upsurge is not without its challenges, writes Chris Knight

Newspaper columns the world over regularly overflow with reports of the power of nascent technology. And as technology touches every aspect of our lives, so it pervades the aviation sector as well.

In fact, the industry has experienced an exponential increase in data transmission over recent years, and, consequently, a corresponding leap in the ability to monitor, record, stream and analyse in-flight data. For example, whereas the Airbus A320 originally generated around 400 parameters (pieces) of data per flight, the figure is 400,000 parameters for the most recent A350.

Furthermore, the scale – and scope – of this growth is set to continue: technologically advanced aircraft are expected to represent 50 percent of the global fleet within ten years, a dramatic jump from approximately 10 percent currently. 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.

Alongside this, blockchain’s application to aircraft maintenance could present an additional paradigm shift for the entire aviation sector.

Predictive maintenance

Representing a USD $9 billion (£6.9 billion) annual spend for the four largest US airlines alone, aircraft maintenance accounts for a huge proportion of operator expenditure. Minimising these costs is key, and herein lies the desirability of predictive maintenance – airlines can use live data to predict when issues may arise, streamlining the maintenance process and minimising time on-ground.

Harnessing the ever-increasing amounts of information created mid-flight (there are 8,000 – 10,0000 sensors in each wing of the most modern aircraft) allows operators to determine when parts need to be replaced and notify engineers to start arranging the necessary substitutes or repairs hours before landing.

However, the data upsurge is not without challenges. As in many sectors, data confidentiality and ownership issues are relevant – 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?

There are also practical barriers – the majority of airlines still have only limited capability to effectively filter, process and analyse the increasingly vast quantities of real-time information.

“Clearly there are a number of benefits, which could revolutionise areas of the industry, however they must be harnessed carefully and correctly”

For predictive maintenance to really fly, developments in data generation and transmission must be combined with data expertise and engineering knowledge.

What role can blockchain play?

Most aircraft maintenance records are still paper-based. Given that a commercial aircraft may be in use for up to 30 years, with five or six owners, paperwork can frequently run into thousands of pages; discrepancies, incomplete information and loss of records is not uncommon. This, in turn, can lead to unnecessary repeated repairs, delays and unplanned expenses. It is no wonder therefore that a paper records review is frequently the main cause of redelivery delays.

There has been a move towards technology of late. For example, GE Aviation’s AirVault and Boeing’s ‘STREAM’ 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 still abound.

Could Blockchain – a form of distributed ledger – be the solution? Here, data is collected in ‘blocks’; 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, owner/lessor, OEM, and MRO. One reason for the fervour currently surrounding Blockchain technology is that addition to the chain is only possible following validation from all other participants, thus creating a trustworthy and transparent decentralised system.

Moreover, 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. Additionally, given that the data is accessible on a common platform, the need for separate data reconciliation between parties is entirely eliminated.

Blockchain therefore has the potential to provide a robust digital archive for the effective storage of manufacturing and ‘back-to-birth’ details, usage data and the repair, inspection and maintenance status of an aircraft. For owners/lessors, there are numerous benefits, including the ability to clearly trace aircraft/engine/parts issues to a timestamped record of prior inspection; the earlier identification of any likely lessor maintenance reserve contributions; the speedier calculation of monthly maintenance reserve amounts; and a reduced need for information requests to be made under leases.

For operators, the burden of maintaining and storing paper-based records or having electronic records maintained with different entities across separate platforms could be eradicated. What’s more, 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.

Blockchain is however still in its embryonic stages and needs to be more widely used before its potential can be fully realised. Despite this, certain industry players are already starting to explore the opportunities. Lufthansa Industry Solutions has, for example, introduced a ‘blockchain for aviation’ initiative combining various entities to test a range of blockchain solutions. Aeron, Accenture and Honeywell are also making strides.

A new age on the horizon?

The pace of in-flight data generation is only set to further gain momentum. Clearly there are a number of benefits, which could revolutionise areas of the industry, however they must be harnessed carefully and correctly. If so, the entire sector could see a new age of efficiency and minimised costs, thanks to data’s ability to inform maintenance preparation and planning.

When it comes to blockchain, it is certainly ‘watch this space’. Whilst it has transformative potential, and is already making certain (currently limited) headway, it requires an industry-wide ‘buy-in’ for it to realise its full potential.

Experts featured:

Chris Knight

Senior Associate
Pillsbury Law


Blockchain data analytics
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