Podcast: Remote Inspection Technology Takes Off During COVID-19

Travel restrictions and social distancing requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic are forcing the MRO industry to get creative in how it conducts business. Aviation Week editor Lindsay Bjerregaard speaks with experts from Rolls-Royce, SR Technics and Donecle about how technology is being used to provide remote inspection services to customers and whether the pandemic will be a catalyst for widespread industry adoption moving forward.

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Below is a rush transcript of Aviation Week’s MRO podcast.

Lindsay Bjerregaard: Welcome to Aviation Week's MRO Podcast. I am Lindsay Bjerregaard, digital producer of MRO content. Joining me today are Joss Bequet, CEO and co-founder of Donecle, Florent Leforestier, VP of new engines at SR Technics, and Peter Troman, service integration manager at Rolls-Royce. Thank you for joining me today gentlemen. With the COVID-19 pandemic creating travel restrictions and the need for social distancing, the MRO industry is seeing increased demand for remote inspection technologies. SR Technics and Rolls-Royce have introduced remote ended inspection services this year and Donecle's drones provide the ability to automate and view aircraft inspections remotely. Today, we'll be talking about how these types of technologies benefit the industry in the pandemic environment and how they might affect MRO trends moving forward. So to start out with Florent, could you tell me about why SR Technics introduced its remote table inspection service and how it works?

Florent Leforestier:    Certainly. Yes. Thank you, Lindsay. So, bit of background. Starting in early 2019, SR Technics began a continuous improvement project to improve overall engine shop turnaround time focusing on key processes improvement like the assembly or visual inspections. One of the areas where it was identified that process waste could be significantly reduced was with table inspection within the assembly phase. 

What does it mean? So typically the engine would be disassembled to the level agreed with the customer in the work scope. And the parts would be held prior, for the processing for the customer to come onsite and view them. This method of performing table inspection resulted for us as a shop in the creation of bottlenecks and consequently an uneven flow of material into the external, but also internal repair cycle. So all these factors were impacting our overall TAT. From there our objective has been therefore to reduce the waiting time of the parts as much as possible, obviously, and eliminate bottlenecks. That's aiming at having a constant and smooth flow of material into the repair cycle and such as a result improve our TAT. The solution that we arrived upon was to record high resolution video or to do even a live video stream of the engine, engine modules, parts, and make those available to our customers as early as possible during the disassembly process of their engine.

                                So essentially in a remote table inspection, so to say. So with that set up, customers are free to view the videos where, and when, and as often they like, but also our people—so customer account managers, engineers—will schedule online review meetings with our customers where they can discuss any finding defects, what scope issues, et cetera, as if there will be during a traditional table inspection. So, this solution provides really an equivalent level of details as a standout or traditional table inspection, but allows obviously presentation of the engine condition and discuss with the customer and all this being processed in parallel to the engine disassembly. So for us, again, as a shop, reducing waiting time bottlenecks. So as such, we have a much faster and smoother repair cycle of all those parts. So that's in a nutshell, basically the background on the remote table inspection.

Lindsay Bjerregaard: So it sounds like you've already described the benefits a little bit, but what type of customer demand have you seen for the service since you introduced it?

Florent Leforestier:    Well, obviously, I mean, we were already quite well along in the development of that solution when the COVID restrictions really started to impact our customers, to say that our industry, so therefore we're able to quickly accelerate our plans and get the remote table inspection up and running pretty fast. Today we do see a significant interest and increase for such services and I would say currently the vast majority—close to a hundred percent—of the tables inspections happen remotely. So that's to show really the interest and I would say the need now for such solution.

Remote table inspections add value for the customer, but as I said already, also for our shop, mainly it's three ways. I mean, firstly, obviously COVID restrictions, many of our customers are not able to travel anymore right now and for those that may or could be traveling, maybe not really so happening to travel those days, adhering to aviation measures, keeping social distancing, et cetera makes everything a bit more complex. As such, I mean it's the remote table inspection and ideal solution, because it delivers the same experience our customer representative would have had before, but without having to leave their normal environment, let it be the office or our homes.

Secondly, your remote table inspection also allows to save time and costs. While we are, like all of us, part of the aviation industry. We will, of course, appreciate if people would travel more again and if a customer would typically when they be visiting us, I mean, it's not just about the table inspection, but it's also, we try to combine their visit with workshop, show them new services like recently implementing new quick timeline, et cetera. But obviously for those knowing us pretty well or not being able to travel, that's inspecting the parts remotely is a fast, simple, and cost saving options. And last but not least and mentioned for us, it also allows a smooth, fast start of the shop visit and gives us the best opportunity to deliver complete attention back to our customer within the expected turnaround time.

Lindsay Bjerregaard: Wonderful. So Peter, how would you say that pandemic has affected how Rolls-Royce delivers digital MRO solutions to customers?

Peter Troman:            So let me split my answer into two parts. I think pre-pandemic to give it some context and what we're doing now. So pre-pandemic, we've always sought to push the boundaries of using the power of digital technology to effectively supercharge our products and services and this is what we call our intelligent engine vision. This is using new and innovative digital solutions that allow us to take full advantage of all the increased data delivered from our engines and enables us to make better and more timely decisions about when and how to carry out our servicing to improve engine efficiency and maximize availability.

And I think what we're finding now is that it's no longer just acceptable to have excellent reliability. It is essential to maximize availability of the product, minimize the downtime and maximize the uptime, which in turn enables our customers to maximize their profit from their assets and digital MRO Solutions are absolutely key to this. So what we're seeing now, I would say that the pandemic hasn't really changed our strategy, it’s just changed the priority and accelerated certain projects within our portfolio. And also we discovered new use cases for our digital capability, which we hadn't previously thought of.

So for example, one project I'm responsible for is the use of a digital collaboration tool called Librestream Onsite Connect. We call it Librestream for short. This is a tool that enables people in the field or MROs to share live videos and images securely across mobile and Wi-Fi networks to subject matter experts, wherever they are located in world. So pre-pandemic we were very much, we were using this tool, but it was very much in a sort of break the glass situation where people in the field needed additional support on a fairly ad hoc basis. But once lockdown happened, we could no longer travel to support our customers. And we were on the point of a number of our customers going AOG, because we couldn't fly in inspectors to form. I mean, this example is specialist Trent, 1000 IP compressor blade inspection. So yes. So what we've done, we've used Librestream to train airline inspectors remotely to carry out these complex tasks. And this has been very successful, and today we've delivered over 16 training courses. So I think in summary, I'd say the pandemic just increased our resolve to deliver more digital MRO solutions and it's definitely given us confirmation that the intelligent engine vision is the right one.

Lindsay Bjerregaard: Wonderful! So I'm curious about this Librestream solution. How does it work from a standpoint of how the technology is used and what tools are involved with making one of those inspections happen?

Peter Troman:            Okay. So let me talk about this, where we've been using it for the remote training. So the task uses ultrasound probe that is put into the engine to check the condition of the IP compressor blades on the Trent 1000. And it's an extremely challenging task that only qualified and trained NDT inspectors can perform. So where we've used Librestream, so drawing the remote training session, the trainer and the trainees use Librestream to provide multiple encrypted, secure video streams from four cameras. Each the trainer and the trainee have four cameras each. This allows the trainer to demonstrate the task and the trainer and the trainee inspector then to perform the task back. The trainer and trainee share images from the probe output screen from the oscilloscope screen and from the borescope that is confirming the probe is in exactly the right place.

And plus we use additional cameras just to show general views of the trainer and the trainee handling the equipment and a general view of where they are on the engine. So, the remote trainer has the complete understanding of how the equipment is being used and with the additional views of the trainee and their hands, it's even possible to pick up on body language when the train is strolling. So effectively, what we've managed to achieve is the trainer has a real virtual presence with the trainee. I was also going to mention some of the benefits if you'd like, if you want me to as well.

Lindsay Bjerregaard: Sure.

Peter Troman:            So I'd say as already mentioned, due to airlines having the ability to carry out their own inspections. And now they're allowed to confirm engines are in good condition to continue flying. We've avoided a number of AOGs and also we've saved customers a considerable amount of time and money. And it was the situation with Air China, that was the real catalyst for offering remote training of these complex tasks. The situation we had when COVID struck with Air China had seven engines that needed to be inspected and they were planning to, and they were resulting to removing the engines and they were physically going to truck them to Hong Kong, which was a journey of 1300 miles because that was the location of the nearest inspectors. So this would have been a huge disruption to the airline and very expensive and very time consuming. So the use of Librestream definitely helped Air China to avoid that.

How the use of Librestream has indirectly helped provide humanitarian relief as well during the current pandemic, because once the remote training was completed and inspections performed, it allowed one of our European operators to fly to China to get medical supplies. So on a personal level, that was giving me great sense of job satisfaction to think we've actually helped indirectly save lives with enabling customers to actually perform these inspections. So, I'd say both airlines and Rolls-Royce have saved time and money and it has been such a major breakthrough that's even beyond this current pandemic. I don't think there's any going back. And the more we've used the technology, the capability, I think we've seen the confidence grow in the system both internally and externally and among those we've trained. So I think everyone is happy and it gives us, it's just another option that we have in our toolbox on how we support our customers.

Lindsay Bjerregaard: Fantastic. Well, speaking of other options in the toolbox—Joss, I know that Donecle drones have already received a lot of interest from MROs and airlines for their ability to make aircraft inspections more efficient. So could you explain a little bit about what their benefits might be in the COVID-19 environment?

Joss Bequet:              Yeah, totally. So the general advantages, I mean, remain the same obviously. They provide easy access to the upper areas of the aircraft to much faster than a human inspection would typically be and they enable operators to automate some of the image analysis and review to conduct those inspections more speedily. But the real focus we've seen over the past few months is on the sort of last aspect of the whole process—sort of data applications. And we basically provide all of our customers with an account form where they're able to aggregate the unstructured data they have from their aircraft [inaudible 00:13:42] easily. And I think that's really been an advantage for the past few months and with the COVID-19 situation, it's the ability to acquire accurate and objective data of an aircraft surface to produce digital reports and to share them with other people easily.

And I mean, it's still very much a paper based environment, a paper based industry. A lot of airlines and MROs have led efforts to really move on towards digital reports and digital inspections and I think both Florent and Peter provided a good example of that. And what drone inspections and that inception data allows officers to do is to share data more efficiently with external parties without having them to travel on site. Three examples, for example, is MROs having to share data on a routine basis with their own third party airline customers. MROs or airlines during a routine inspection have to send a finding to OEMs and usually it's, again, a paper report with some images attached to that, and it's fairly cumbersome and not always time efficient. And so the ability to very easily produce a digital report from the drone inspection enables them to be much more efficient in that regard.

And the last aspect is anything to do with aircraft handovers or the transition, but typically airlines or operators or aircraft donors send a consultant on site to inspect the aircraft. And obviously in the recent months this hasn't been possible and most operators have been limited in terms of crew they can send, when it can send them in and where they can send them. And so the ability to have a facility scan the aircraft and then send a full, 3D digital picture of that aircraft at a given moment in time, it's really enabled them to speed on that process.

Lindsay Bjerregaard: Fantastic. And I know you've also been in touch with a lot of your customers during the pandemic. So I'm curious, are you noticing any changes in terms of how the situation is affecting their technology adoption? And Florent and Peter, you can also chime in on that as well, because I know that you probably keep in touch with other MROs and OEMs within the industry as well.

Joss Bequet:              I think the current situation is affecting pretty much all providers globally. Obviously our distant customers had already led the way with them implementing digital tools and new technologies, but we're seeing a lot of interest from other operators and airlines and MROs who have sort of been forced to move forward because of the pandemic in terms of moving away from paperless processes, moving to things like digital signatures, digital sign off, people or inspectors or experts having to work remotely and provide their opinion on aircraft conditions not being on site. And so I think that's really been a major trend, it’s the [inaudible 00:16:27] have seen that they have to change somewhere out there because they can't continue to work the way they used to right now. Another aspect also is just data storage in general. A lot of airlines or MROs were still focused on keeping data hosted locally. A lot of people out there are starting to move to a cloud based environments and other solutions to be able to share data more efficiently, especially when their employees aren’t necessarily on site or in different locations.

Peter Troman:            Yeah, I largely agree with that. I do agree with that. I think we've seen a huge acceleration of the adoption of technology. I'd say, quite candidly, pre-pandemic I was experiencing some reluctance to embrace some of the new technology and the new ways of working associated with it. People often said they were too busy to learn and deploy the new technology. And I suppose the analogy I've got is very much like the man who's cutting down a tree with a blunt saw and he says that he doesn't have the time to stop and sharpen it when everyone else can see that the right thing is to stop and sharpen the saw. So, what the pandemic has done has broken down those barriers and an acceleration of the adoption of the new technology. And I said it before, but I'd say now we have used the technology and customers have seen the benefits.

I just don't think we'll revert back to the old ways of working and I'm already seeing requests from MROs and the customers on other tasks we can train remotely. And this week we delivered our, even this week, we delivered our first remote training course to an overhaul shop on how to use specialist tooling to dress the leading edge of fan blades. And pre-pandemic the only way we could get this training was face to face. The MRO would have to fly to us here in Derby, in our training school, or we'd have to supply a trainer. So huge benefit. So, as a capability owner for Librestream within Rolls-Royce I'm just absolutely delighted with the difference this is now making.

Florent Leforestier:    Certainly I can fully agree with my two colleagues. I mean, I think that we all agree the situation demands innovation and new ways of working for all of us and how we do business. So you were mentioning this about where the customer was reluctant, understood. So, I will say we started to say about a year ago and the acceptance was maybe a bit more difficult. Today, I mean, due to the urgent need for remote access because of people not being able to travel, this is big now—much, much wider, appreciating it in wish. I would say a bit, what Peter said, we are also training services business unit, where we were already working for a while on virtual and even augmented reality solutions. Where we also already have been a bit like Rolls-Royce we also offer today virtual classroom training. So approved by aviation authorities. So this was already in place, but indeed the need for more for going beyond is increasing and we are already working on the next project.

Lindsay Bjerregaard: Fantastic. Well, to run this out, Peter brought up some good points about this with new technologies' ability to help with training, and one of the big topics that I've noticed in a lot of my reporting this year has related to workforce issues. So, COVID-19 has certainly had effects on the workforce with many technicians being forced to either change the way that they work or some being furloughed or laid off. And I'm curious what your thoughts are on this—how might these technologies provide benefits for the workforce once things start to normalize?

Florent Leforestier:    Well, from the SR Technics side, I mean, we do see the benefits of technology as a shop, let's say in improving processing times, but also creating safer, more efficient environment. Like for example, the onboarding of new employees, which is making easier and safer through a virtual training and technology applications that we have been developed at SRT do go at that sense, aiming really at making daily work of all places safer, easier, but also providing value to our customer that's quality or ability costs. And I think it was mentioned earlier, availability is really being true for repetitive process. Still, I mean, technology trends and innovation should not be seen as a threat for employment, especially, I mean, in our MRO business where you [inaudible 00:21:07] , while an engine is an engine, every engine that comes to a shop for maintenance requires somehow unique treatment and you will still require high skilled employees to constantly adapt and look for the best solutions for around the engines they have in front of them.

Lindsay Bjerregaard: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for sharing your insights with us today gentlemen. Stay tuned to aviation week's editorial coverage for more insight on new technologies and how the MRO industry is adapting to the COVID-19 crisis. Listeners if you have any comments, feel free to contact us at [email protected]. You can download and subscribe to aviation week's MRO podcast on iTunes. Thank you for listening and joining us.



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.