How will the industry of aircraft maintenance and continued airworthiness look like in twenty years and how will these changes affect the way companies are performing their continued airworthiness management responsibilities? As part of the Sentinal research program, EXSYN Aviation Solutions also defined a confronting vision on the future of continued airworthiness.
Since several years a fast movement is taking place in technology on one side and communication and interaction on the other side. Collaboration, collective knowledge, digital communities (e.g. Facebook. LinkedIn and Twitter) and technological developments in IT hardware are the key pillars in this movement. Already we are able to perform surgery on human individuals whereby the doctor is actually on the other side of the world, operating on the patient via a robot (Howe, RD, Matsuoka, Y. “Robotics for Surgery.” Annual Review Biomedical Engineering. 1999, 01:213.) . Or a more aviation related situation, Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAV’s) are patrolling the middle-eastern skies and the pilots are sitting in a compound located on U.S soil. What does all of this have to do with the future of continued airworthiness?
Well, key in the previous two examples is something which is defined as “separating the information from its artifact” (Dhar & Sundararajan , Information Technologies in Business: A Blueprint for Education and Research, Information System Research, 2007, 18(2)). This means that information is per definition not fixed to one single person, location or machine. The artifact in the aviation based situation would be the airline’s continued airworthiness system and separating in this situation would actually mean to take data away from the airline and provide it from a central controlled information system. Such a centrally controlled system contains all related scheduled maintenance information for the particular aircraft types operated by the airline. And all this information is controlled by means of this system. Part numbers, aircraft maintenance programs, airworthiness directives, service bulletins, check intervals, configurations, maintenance documentation and reliability programs will become centrally managed information. The only organization capable of controlling such a central information system would be the aircraft manufacturers. This trend can already be identified in cases where the manufacturers provide a full package support with the aircraft that you buy. Evidence of this trend can be found in the complete Boeing EDGE program, the Boeing digital airline program and the Airbus E-solutions program.
However to enable a full separation of information from its artifact we also need to look at unscheduled maintenance. Currently unscheduled maintenance is judged by a human individual who acknowledges the fact that a certain component on the aircraft is not fit for operation anymore and needs to be replaced. Usually this acknowledgement is performed according a set of guidelines stipulated in the maintenance documentation of the aircraft. Now the challenge is to separate the information required for this judgment from the human individual. Full Real-life Automated Communication (FRAC) between the aircraft and the central information system is required to enable this. Again we can see this movement progressing with programs such as Embraer’s AHEAD and Boeing’s Aircraft Condition Monitoring System (ACMS) which are both systems within an aircraft which transmit data concerning faults and aircraft system health to ground stations. Here it is just a matter of time before sufficient technological developments are available to transmit the full information whether a tire needs to be replaced or a dent is detected in the fuselage of the aircraft.
The growing opportunity for such a manufacturer central continued airworthiness information system would be the integration of this central system with all other relevant information such as flight planning, material provisioning, maintenance planning, manpower planning, facility planning and equipment planning. Again this trend is already taking place on a local level at airlines in which airlines choose to utilize a fully integrated system or interface between their various IT systems both internally and externally with suppliers.
As a result engineering departments, planning departments, purchasing departments and troubleshooters all become obsolete as each of the activities they nowadays perform can be fully automated and performed more efficiently by automated routines and programs centrally controlled by the manufacturer of aircraft. Another result will be that the human interaction with information systems will be greatly reduced and will most likely be focused on providing initial data to any system. From that moment the information systems can function autonomously.
From a regulations point of view it will require the regulatory bodies to rethink their approach to continued airworthiness regulations because the main key drivers for ensuring this continued airworthiness will become the responsibility of the aircraft manufacturer. It will be controlled solely through computerized systems which are written by human programmers. These systems receive the initial data inputs from human individuals. Additionally it will make third party suppliers of any kind of aviation software obsolete as all systems will be controlled via the aircraft manufacturers.