Opinion: Are Aircraft Going To Become ‘Conscious’?

Cranfield University campus
Credit: Cranfield University

For a global industry urgently looking to cut costs, “conscious aircraft”—that have the technology to anticipate problems and book themselves for maintenance—will be a major breakthrough.

Unscheduled maintenance generates huge costs for airlines and airports as well as delays and cancellations for passengers. In 2017 alone, this amounted to more than $6.5 billion for widebody jets and $5 billion for small regional jets. Conscious aircraft are expected to cut all maintenance costs by around one-third.

The technology needed to deliver this is coming together. Trials are underway of inspection robots as well as packages of sensors and artificial intelligence to deliver the “consciousness” needed to make good decisions.

But there are problems. As always with major innovation, there are issues around regulation. More immediately, there is a data bottleneck in aviation: a lack of speed and capacity of data transfer (at least at a cost that makes business sense). By 2026, digital aviation is expected to demand the transfer of 98 billion gigabytes of data per year. If the industry is to benefit from the step-change in operational performance and costs, then it needs a powerful new digital communications infrastructure.

The conscious aircraft principle uses self-sensing and communication technologies (similar to a human nervous system) to avoid problems caused by component degradation, unforeseen technical failures and human error. Monitoring current platform health, reliably predicting the remaining useful life of components and systems and then automatically reconfiguring them to optimize their remaining useful lives will obviously reduce costs. The capability will have a major impact on operational efficiency and also facilitate more sustainable fleet operations with new technologies aimed at reducing emissions and environmental impact.

Conscious aircraft hangars will be data-driven and based around autonomous technologies, with inspections conducted through a combination of aerial and ground-based robotics. Systems could create their own orders for 3D-printed replacement parts, and aircraft would be able to plan visits to “lights-out” MRO hangars—automated facilities that switch on only when they are needed—where remote maintenance engineers could engage with them as needed. Drones equipped with visual/thermal systems that allow for non-destructive testing will fly around the aircraft structure to locate anomalies and problematic areas both externally and within the structure.

Cranfield’s Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre (DARTeC) includes a full-scale hangar laboratory that is being used to investigate the use of cameras to inspect aircraft and control robots as they move around an airframe. Data from inspections and a digital-twin simulation (virtual replicas of aircraft based on a full range of sensor data) inform decision-making on airworthiness. The digital version of a conscious aircraft is due by 2026, with an ultra-low-maintenance prototype expected by 2035 and service entry by 2040.

Each day an aircraft is not in use costs an estimated £200,000 ($270,000), with maintenance overall being estimated to make up 10% of airline costs. In 2016, airlines spent $62.1 billion on MRO, a figure expected to reach $90 billion by 2024. Minimizing the time aircraft are on the ground for maintenance also reduces risk: Collisions involving aircraft on the ground cost an average £350,000.

Integrated vehicle health management and digital aviation generally have focused on delivering economic benefits that often are strongly linked to environmental benefits. These include improving the efficiency of MRO by reducing the number of maintenance operations, reducing disruption to airline operations caused by unforeseen technical faults or no-fault-found events and minimizing disruption caused by damage such as a bird impact. Environmental benefits include reductions in energy use, pollution, wastage and materials use.

For any of this to be delivered, there has to be a reliable, real-time flow of data. Thousands of aircraft health parameters (on engine performance, pressures, rotor speeds, temperatures, vibration) need to be communicated to the ground for full health monitoring. But our ability to find affordable ways to transmit, process and make sense of the data has not kept pace. It is just a tidal wave of information that should be useful—but there’s still a nagging sense among engineers that other and more useful data has yet to be tapped into.

Providing more actionable data will smooth the way for the regulation needed for a global fleet of conscious aircraft. We can’t afford to allow the speed and capacity of data transfer to prevent such a critical transformation.

Ian Jennions is technical director and Jim Angus is commercial director of the Integrated Vehicle Health Management Centre at Cranfield University north of London.

The views expressed are not necessarily shared by Aviation Week.