Investing In Augmented Reality for Aviation Companies

MROs and OEMs are teaming up with AR technology providers to explore applications in the classroom and on the shop floor

Augmented reality (AR) has been steadily gaining traction within the MRO industry for everything from technician training and remote collaboration to previewing aircraft configurations and liveries. If financial investments are any indication, interest in the technology only continues to grow.

RealWear recently raised $17 million in funding for its HMT-1 AR wearable device, and AR software provider Upskill just picked up $17.2 million in capital support from investors including Accenture, GE Ventures and Boeing HorizonX. GE Aviation, which ran a six-month pilot program last year using

Google Glass and Upskill’s Skylight software, found that 60% of mechanics involved in the pilot preferred accessing work procedures via AR compared to the traditional method.

Upskill’s Skylight platform is deployed across multiple Boeing locations for applications within manufacturing, maintenance, repair and distribution. The company recently completed a successful pilot program for using the software in conjunction with Glass Enterprise to simplify the process for wire installation, which is typically a complex job. Upskill says the program resulted in a 25% reduction in wiring production time and lowered error rates to effectively zero. According to a spokesperson, the OEM plans to scale up the pilot this year. Boeing has developed an AR system that enables kitting of 3D drawings based on wire installation plans, which are then presented to the end user and spatially aligned to an aircraft on a wearable device. Currently, Boeing has four devices available for use that are being operationally tested as a production pilot. In addition to wearable devices, the company wants to develop products for hand-held delivery of this AR view on smartphones and tablets this year.

Another recent Boeing HorizonX investment generating buzz is Pittsburgh-based C360 Technologies, which specializes in 360-deg. video and AR/VR. Boeing’s spokesperson says the company sees various potential applications for C360’s AR video capabilities, including immersive inflight entertainment, aerial survey and for the “factory of the future.” Although Boeing did not share any specific use cases it is exploring, it hopes to further enhance productivity and quality in manufacturing by tapping into both C360 and Upskill’s AR capabilities. Potentially of interest in developing ideas will be Boeing’s recent investment in California-based Singularity University, which seeks to further the application of technologies such as AR through educational programs for both individuals and organizations.

Like Boeing, Honeywell has been collaborating with AR providers for industrial and aerospace use cases. It is part of RealWear’s Pioneer Program and has been collaborating with Microsoft to use its HoloLens mixed reality headset to train plant personnel through its Connected Plant Skills Insight system. Skills Insight combines AR and virtual reality (VR) training with data analytics to improve skills retention and reduce training time. A representative for Honeywell says the company is working to bring systems like this to both pilot training and MRO, such as using an AR headset to read stamped, etched or dirty part numbers directly off engine parts.

Also collaborating with Microsoft to use HoloLens for MRO are Airbus and AFI-KLM E&M. Airbus, which is part of Microsoft’s Mixed-Reality Partner Program, has been using AR technology on the digital shop floor since 2011. Employing a hand-held AR device that displays a 3D model on top of an aircraft and tracks user movements and the environment via sensors, Airbus engineers and operators are able to see data and information to assist construction and inspection processes. According to Airbus, this approach reduced the inspection time of 60,000 brackets used on an A380 fuselage to just three days from three weeks.

Airbus says its partnership with Microsoft has allowed the company to better understand AR’s capabilities and leverage the technology’s potential. Similar to Boeing’s wire installation process using Glass Enterprise, Airbus electrical teams use HoloLens AR glasses to view different parts of a virtual harness cable superimposed on top of an aircraft in front of them. The company says this hands-free AR guidance enables a 25% faster installation that is easier and more comfortable for operators.

An Airbus technician uses HoloLens mixed- reality glasses on the shop floor.

L3 Link, a long-time provider of training and simulation products for military and government customers, has developed the Immersive Maintenance Guide (IMG), which pairs with the HoloLens or a variety of other hands-free AR headsets for both maintenance support and training. L3 Link says the IMG unifies aviation training and field operations support by bringing technical manuals to life using interactive 3D graphics and technical data. The IMG can work as a virtual assistant in the field by providing on-demand refresher training and troubleshooting for mechanics, which L3 Link says increases first-time fix rates and reduces maintenance costs. The company also says that for maintenance trainees, the IMG’s AR/VR classrooms better engage students while accelerating learning and increasing knowledge retention.

AFI KLM E&M also has been leveraging AR technology for training. The company’s MRO Lab in Singapore has paired the HoloLens with a training application prototype that allows mechanics to interact with expensive and complex parts—such as aircraft engines—in a virtual classroom environment. In addition to the benefits of avoiding the time and expense required to work on physical parts, AFI-KLM E&M says this mixed-reality training prototype has proven it can enable faster and more accurate learning. A spokesperson says all mechanics training at AFI-KLM E&M will now use mixed and virtual reality, such as a system the MRO Lab has developed for technical training on the Boeing 787 that takes no more than five days, since technicians do not need to access the physical aircraft. The company is exploring other use cases for the technology, such as remote collaboration or accessing aircraft documentation for step-by-step guidance while repairing components.

One new AR technology focused on remote collaboration is Fountx’s assisted reality. The wearable technology was tested for a year under Fountx’s parent company, TAE Aerospace, before its release in 2017. While wearing the Fountx headset, trainees or technicians working in remote locations are able to collaborate with an expert in a different location who can view what they are seeing and draw on the shared screen to indicate specific points of interest.

After conducting initial trials of the technology late last year, ST Aerospace—which purchased two units from Fountx—has moved to more operational trials to enhance its digital products. Last November, ST Aerospace Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Lam told Inside MRO that the company was considering AR for both training and remote support applications. At this year’s Singapore Airshow, ST Aerospace demonstrated how AR glasses could be used to support engineers and mechanics when removing the axle nuts of an aircraft wheel.

According to Andy Jones, head of sales at Fountx, the company has seen abundant interest in the technology and has demo units in place at a number of aerospace companies, including Airbus, Pacific Air Express and the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.

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