Digital twins, AI, mobile apps and drones: The four technology developments set to hit commercial aviation in 2018. By Mark Martin

In the face of some early market challenges, 2017 proved to be another positive year in commercial aviation. A surge in air passenger numbers and new aircraft orders as well as reports of being the safest year in commercial aviation history saw a strong end to 2017 for commercial organisations.

Despite the positives, airlines are continuing to strive for improvement in every part of their businesses. None more so than in the maintenance department, where airlines spend more money than on fuel or crew. So, what’s in store for airlines and MROs for 2018? Here are the developments I expect to be major disruptors for organisations in the new year.

1. Seeing double: Digital twins will set new maintenance standards
Digital twins is a state-of-the-art method that has the potential to drastically reduce maintenance costs. As the name suggests, digital twins create a virtual replica of a physical asset using data points and IoT devices implemented during the design and manufacturing phase. GE recently helped develop the world’s first digital twin for an airplane’s landing gear, placing sensors on typical failure points on the asset to provide real-time data and diagnose its remaining lifecycle.

By monitoring the asset’s digital twin, organisations can monitor the health of the asset as well as receive early warnings, predictions and even a plan of action by simulating ‘whatif ’ scenarios – based on weather, performance, operations and other variables – to help keep equipment in service for longer.

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

2. AI in the sky: Taking predictive maintenance from luxury to must-have
Much like drones, AI is starting to invade the skies. SITA claims half of airlines surveyed will invest in AI and cognitive computing in the next three years, with predictive maintenance touted as one of the biggest opportunities from the technology. An Oliver Wyman report suggested that, by reducing the need for routine maintenance and only triggering repairs when needed, predictive analytics can help increase fleet availability by up to 35 per cent and reduce labour costs by ten per cent.

One of the biggest challenges facing AI adopters is that storing and analysing vast quantities of data can overwhelm legacy IT systems – something that the next generation of cloud solutions are helping with. Cloud solutions are now able to 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.

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

3. Mobility and the cloud at your service – SaaS offerings make mobile deliver
The cloud isn’t just being sought after for AI – cloud services also go hand in hand with mobile devices. IFS Commercial Aviation research identified mobile computing as one of the top five areas for investment in 2018, with over 30 per cent of respondents identifying mobile as being a key driver of digital transformation.

The transformation to a software as-a-service (SaaS) and mobile environment is driving this trend, as SaaS solutions produce new efficiencies for commercial aviation operations – particularly for line maintenance execution and planning. The ability to purchase cloud-based software instead of on-premise and access it through a mobile device is also helping allay previous concerns around the amount of physical hardware needed to adopt new technologies. Cloud-based solutions can be rolled out to a mobile workforce with no physical installation required, meaning airlines can focus on the value they receive rather than the infrastructure they need – removing a barrier of change.

4. Drones: An autonomous inspector calls
Six hours – that’s the average time it takes to visually inspect a commercial aircraft. Although this might not sound a long time for such an important job, drones are entering the market which have the potential to drastically cut this while lowering costs and boosting accuracy. 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.

Developments are also being made to automate these inspections. Maintenance engineers would still control the flight of the drone, but by using visual processing algorithms combined with enterprise IT systems, the drone can send work orders straight to the maintenance crew as soon as a fault is identified.

But challenges remain: drones need to receive FAA approval for both outdoor and indoor flights, but regional regulations on the use of drones change from country to country. Operational complications, such as security safeguards, communication with ongoing air traffic and airport authority approval, provide further barriers that also need to be considered.

There is growing appetite for the use of the technology, though, so expect to see more drones flying around maintenance hangars if industry regulations can be met in 2018.

Commercial aviation leads the way
IFS research confirmed that aviation leads in the take-up of new technologies for digital transformation and, although some of these technologies may be in their infancy, the commercial aviation industry is fully aware of the potential benefits they will bring. Watch out for these developments as they move from early adoption to proven solutions in 2018.

Mark Martin
Mark Martin is Director, Commercial Aviation Product Line, Aviation & Defence Business Unit at IFS. IFS is a globally recognised provider of both enterprise-wide solutions and best-of-breed point software products designed specifically for the global aviation & defence (A&D) markets, including commercial aviation & military operators, A&D manufacturers, in-service support and third-party Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) providers. IFS customers include BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, SAAB, GE Aviation, Pratt & Whitney, HAL, Emirates, LATAM, Qantas, China Airlines, Air France-KLM, and Southwest Airlines.