It is tempting to think that aviation will derive nothing positive from the novel coronavirus pandemic. While parked aircraft, smaller operators, and a generally downsized industry are clear negatives, some changes forced by the spread of COVID-19 will benefit the industry long after the viral menace is gone.
In the regulatory compliance area, expansion of remote technology may end up being the most positive development. Using technology such as cameras was never prohibited, but its use was not readily embraced by certificate holders. In March 2020, the U.S. FAA’s Aircraft Certification Service, backed by several years of industry input, fast-tracked guidance on technology such as cameras and video conferencing for a range of required tasks, including conformity inspections as well as engineering and ground tests. On April 20, the FAA’s Flight Standards unit followed up with its own inspector guidance, providing a framework—but, importantly, not prescriptive limitations—that expands technology’s use deeper into the MRO world.
The guidance provides general considerations of which inspectors should be mindful when video and communication technology (VCT) is proposed to help accomplish tasks. Among them: Video quality must be sufficient for the task and must provide some method of validating that whatever is being recorded or broadcast is happening where and when it is supposed to—think time stamps, for example.
The order does not exclude any specific technologies or products from eligibility, saying only that the tools must be able to “accomplish the task.” The only exception is a general one: FAA personnel must use government-issued devices for any tasks they perform. An example: Watching a video shot by a certificate holder on a government-issued laptop or smart phone.
VCT may “enhance processes and procedures” or may serve as an “alternative” to a given task, the FAA guidance says. The technology also can be used live. For example, picture an inspector watching a video feed of an inspection and directing the camera holder on what should be shown.
Industry stakeholders are confident that the new guidance, combined with the realities of the pandemic-related social distancing, will prompt rapid adoption of VCT. Certificate holders can use devices as simple as a smart phone to record evidence of accomplishing tasks that the agency can then validate.
Airframe services specialist MRO Holdings is among the aftermarket providers embracing the new technology. The company was in the midst of a major facility expansion when the pandemic hit. A required FAA facility inspection was due, but getting an inspector out during the pandemic was a nonstarter. Instead, the inspector was brought in virtually, using a video-conferencing service.
In addition to serving as the FAA inspector’s “eyes and ears,” the link allowed for digital photos to be taken and electronic documents to be delivered, says Gregg Brown, MRO Holdings vice president of compliance and technical solutions. The inspection took 3 hr., and the facility was approved for use right away.
The company has loftier aspirations for VCT. It uses remote links to connect a newly centralized planning, engineering and supply chain operations center with its multiple airframe facilities. The setup means the company can put a team of experts in each MRO shop without their having to physically be there, Brown says. A similar approach could eventually be used to help customers keep tabs on aircraft in MRO Holdings’ facilities with fewer airline technical representatives on-site.
“I think [we will be] in a rapidly evolving landscape for the foreseeable future,” Brown says. “This crisis is going to spur some really innovative thinking, and I’m really excited as a technology geek to watch this happen.”