FAA Cautiously Embraces Remote Tech for MRO

A virtual borescope inspection at Lufthansa Technik.
Credit: Lufthansa Technik

Travel and social distancing constraints during the COVID-19 pandemic have compelled both repair stations and regulatory agencies to adapt their perspectives about how new technologies are used and approved within aircraft maintenance. During a panel at Aviation Week Network’s MRO TransAtlantic virtual event on Oct. 29, representatives from the FAA and International Air Transport Association (IATA) detailed ways in which the industry’s widespread adoption of virtual tools during the pandemic have altered the repair station-regulator relationship—and some critical aspects that still need to be kept in mind as new technologies become commonplace on the shop floor.

According to Thomas Winston, deputy director general aviation safety assurance at the FAA, the framework of safety management systems has been front and center during MRO’s pivot to remote technologies this year. “In large part, it is no longer the case of repair stations asking the FAA for permission,” said Winston. “Instead, we expect repair stations to develop intended courses of action, which includes identifying answers, assessing risk and developing plans to mitigate those risks.”

He noted that repair stations have “permission to play” and that they can use different types of technologies to ensure compliance, “but it’s the operator who has to identify the hazards of using that technology and also mitigate the risk. It’s the FAA’s responsibility to validate it.” He adds that as long as repair stations can show compliance using tools, there are no limitations on how they can be used—and the FAA is encouraging repair stations to reach out to others to find out more about which technologies are being used and what lessons are being learned.

The FAA itself has embraced what it calls video communication technology (VCT) to validate and perform its safety critical activities in light of COVID-19 challenges. “The FAA will always have functions that require physical presence in the workplace, but we are making the most of many of the available technology tools that enable us to continue providing mission critical services,” said Winston.  

The FAA’s Flight Standards Service has added a wide range of VCT such as Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, GoPro, WebEx and SharePoint to conduct its work, including holding meetings, inspections to renew or issue certifications, conducting oral exams, delivering training, and accessing manuals and aircraft records. As of last month, Winston said the FAA had carried out 149 remote technology events in 33 countries.

“In many ways, responding to this global health emergency has made us more flexible in ways we communicate in real time with the industry,” he noted. “While COVID-19 situations will eventually pass, we are already cataloging best practices and lessons learned in areas like remote technologies—lessons that are likely to become part of the eventual new normal.”

However, IATA cautions that remote repair technologies are not a silver bullet to handle all maintenance activities. “VCT is seen as an alternate and complementing element enhancing the process of monitoring the appropriate execution of repairs. It’s not a replacement of the maintenance repair act,” said Dragos Budeanu, manager paperless operations, IATA.

Budeanu noted that repair stations and regulators need to be aware of the limitations of VCT, since it cannot replace senses such as touch or smell when carrying out maintenance activities. “It’s not a sort of, ‘Let’s do a selfie with the repair’ [situation]—that doesn’t fit the bill,” he said. “The industry is clearly aware that they have to cooperate with the authority in the sense of blindfold use of such technologies, meeting a long list of requirements and expectations that the authority has in the sense of equipment setup, in covering the suitability of the technology, the use of this technology and the sense of satisfying the regulatory requirements.”

He also pointed out that cybersecurity is still a concern with information exchanged via remote technologies. “We cannot neglect the series of regulations and laws that are in place with respect to information that you circulate,” he said. “All of these have to be kept in mind by the industry players who want to promote specific platforms in interfacing with the authorities.”

However, Budeanu echoed Winston’s sentiments about the crisis serving as a valuable learning opportunity for future ways of handling maintenance activities. “If we can talk about a silver lining of this challenging crisis context, this is exploring and discovering new ways of doing business, and here the bridging between industry and regulators is essential,” he noted.

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.