Looking Forward to the Hangar of the Future

Purdue University's Hangar of the Future
Credit: Purdue University

As new technologies gain traction for use cases within MRO, a university research lab is working alongside industry to figure out how technology can be most usefully implemented to achieve safety, airworthiness and reliability.

Purdue University’s Hangar of the Future (HOF) started in 2009 to bring multiple industry research and development projects under one roof to link their common threads. With projects run by students ranging from freshmen to PhD levels, HOF is a multi-disciplinary lab that incorporates both typical aviation disciplines as well as fields such as psychology and English (for projects such as graphics-based work instructions) to serve air vehicle maintenance, design and manufacturing.

“Probably 90% of what we do are innovative projects that work with existing technology, so things like augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR), using drones or ground-based robots—everything the industry is sort of advancing towards,” explains Tim Ropp, director of Purdue’s Aerospace and MRO Technology Center. “We do mid-level innovations on those, and then try to achieve airworthy outcomes that serve the technician out of the point of maintenance.”

According to Ropp, HOF serves as an “electronic octopus,” focusing on various arms of technology and aviation to follow the top five or six technology domains the industry is wrestling with, such as AR/VR, drones and 3D printing. Technologies within HOF are blended into curriculum for Purdue’s School of Aviation and Transportation Technology, although Ropp says this is done with careful consideration.

“We meter the technology out. We try not to jam it down into every course, because like industry, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. We have to be very cautious and integrate the technologies that serve the user and don’t just have a cool factor,” explains Ropp.

“We’ll take those technologies and say, ‘In 20 deg. below zero [weather] on gate D19 with a 30 min. turnaround, does this technology deliver the data and the safety awareness and enable the technician to do airworthy work other than just being a fancy toy?’ And if it does not, then we can’t use it or we must innovate it,” he adds.

One example is a project that recently placed first in the Airport Cooperative Research Program’s national University Design Competition. Initially developed as a way to integrate AR systems to improve airport operations, the HOF student project spurred other below-the-wing projects, such as using AR to deliver on-demand training for how to start turning a jet engine.

HOF is also innovating within ground-based robotics, such as students taking a $60 LEGO robot, “giving it a lobotomy,” upgrading its internal computer and attaching a GoPro camera to follow a line drawn on the wing of an aircraft to look at a row of rivets. The video feed was put into a psychology-based neural network to determine if the robot was off center, in the wrong spot or damaged and HOF is now working on a machine learning program to detect damaged rivets.

According to Ropp, NextGen, e-enabled aircraft will be a key driver in both transforming required workforce skillsets and finding ways to attract young workforce to the industry—particularly since the need moving forward will be for people to be both a technician and a data scientist.

“At the end of the day, someone has to go out and turn the wrench—but what that does is mask the incredible blended technology and the competencies of the workforce that’s required,” he explains. “There’s art going on underneath some of the engine cowls that we don’t see all the time, and that’s the human operator being able to blend in and use those technologies on demand.”

Looking toward the future, Ropp sees HOF focusing heavily on incorporating existing technologies such as quantum computing, co-robotics and health aware machines into the data science umbrella.

“These aren’t necessarily new technologies, but I think some of the bigger innovations are going to be, ‘Can we get infrastructure?’ I can’t jam a brand-new system into a 20-year-old Wi-Fi architecture—I’d need more pipeline for that,” he says. “Some of the innovations are how we work with the existing technology data as much as it is about the technology itself.”

Ropp will share more about how NextGen technologies will be integrated into maintenance processes and training at MRO Latin America, Jan. 22-23 in Cartagena, Colombia.

Lindsay Bjerregaard

Lindsay Bjerregaard is managing editor for Aviation Week’s MRO portfolio. Her coverage focuses on MRO technology, workforce, and product and service news for AviationWeek.com, Aviation Week Marketplace and Inside MRO.