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DIGITISATION OF THE ROYAL AIR FORCE’S OFF-AIRCRAFT LOGISTIC SUPPORT ENVIRONMENT by Flight Lieutenant Ruane

First Prize in the 2017 Fujitsu Essay Prize

 

 

Fujitsu 2017 Future of Logistics Challenge

From the science and technology perspective, identify an innovative logistic opportunity and explain why, how and when it would deliver benefit across the Defence Support Network. Given the delegated Defence Operating Model, how would you ensure rapid and successful implementation?

Flight Lieutenant Ruane is an RAF Engineer Officer (Aerosystems) currently serving in the Logistics Division (A4) of the RAF’s Headquarters in Buckinghamshire.  His essay is logical and well structured, and looks at the less glamorous support aspects of those items of equipment not actually on the aircraft.  They do not attract the same built-in systems as similar flying systems, where the astronomic costs of components can warrant automatic advanced capture and in-flight transmission of machine data, and attract significant investment in advanced analytics and technology.  He considers asset tracking before looking at data analytics (where, arguably, greater benefits will accrue from advanced analysis and subsequent planning than simple data capture); however, his practical focus, identification of risks and pragmatic view is refreshing.  Ruane gets right down to the core of many issues without much preamble, which may challenge some readers; however, it really is worth persevering because he has some important messages and thoughts. The paper is single-Service focused, but wholly applicable across wider Defence and industry, especially when considered against a background of significant outsourced front-line support in the Air environment – and outsourcing is a challenge that most if not all civilian as well as military logistic enterprises need to consider. Flight Lieutenant Ruane’s paper was overall winner in the 9th Fujitsu Future of Logistics Challenge annual Essay Competition in 2017.

DIGITISATION OF THE ROYAL AIR FORCE’S OFF-AIRCRAFT LOGISTIC SUPPORT ENVIRONMENT

Introduction

In order to meet the aims of Defence and the RAF[1], most particularly the delivery and sustainment of a Next Generation Air Force, the RAF must optimise its support activities wherever possible.  This can be achieved in part in the Support Engineering and Logistics[2] environment by exploiting emerging digital technologies, broadly referred to here as ‘digitisation’.  This paper aims to explore some of the burgeoning digital technological developments which the RAF may feasibly be able to exploit in the medium term or beyond.  The paper will outline the technology, its capabilities and limitations, and highlight its potential benefit to the RAF, and go on to describe how it might be successfully introduced.

Background. 

The RAF relies on Logistics Support to meet its Defence Task[3] obligations and strategic aims.  Numerous parallels can be drawn between this military activity and that of commercial logistics organisations, from airlines to waste management companies.  Many of these commercial organisations are now utilising and indeed developing cutting edge digital technologies to improve their bottom-line and simultaneously enhance their top-line.  Developments which give a competitive edge to commercial organisations may be suitable for use in the RAF support environment, and therefore merit investigation by the Defence Air logistic community.  ‘Digitisation’ is taken to mean the introduction or application of digital or computerised technology.  The ‘Logistic (A4) Support Environment’ is loosely defined as the off-aircraft engineering and logistics activity at the first line, that is, direct support to aircraft on the front line.  The paper starts by discussing simplistic and low level technology, but builds to consider highly involved asset tracking and data exploitation.

Executive Summary

Digital asset tracking and vehicle management systems are rapidly becoming the industry standard, and whilst introduction of such technology to the RAF present unique challenges, the benefits have been well demonstrated in commercial settings (see Integration below).  The challenges in network enabling Support Equipment include potential security vulnerabilities, access to proprietary data and the risks posed by transmitters in the vicinity of sensitive explosives, or WOME[4] (see Challenges below).  Initiating pilot schemes of digital asset tracking systems may establish how these challenges might be overcome and demonstrate their value sufficiently for further investigation to be warranted.

The next step beyond asset tracking is exploitation of the data subsequently generated, referred to as data analytics or colloquially as ‘big data’ (see Digital Data below).  As is predicted for almost every industry, data analytics has the potential to transform the RAF’s logistic environment and indeed wider MoD; optimising numerous processes and enabling decisions to be made based on quantifiable evidence where they currently rely on military judgement and experience (see Successful Implementation below).  In order to realise the benefits of data analytics, significant change and investment is required within the MoD in its recruitment, training, culture, digital architecture and, potentially, trade structures.

Support Equipment Tracking – The Internet of Things 

Digital technology can be used to ‘network enable’ physical assets, including those which would not traditionally have been digital or computerised; this is often referred to as ‘the internet of things’.  Network enabled assets can send and receive as much data as desired, and even be operated remotely.  In the RAF logistic support environment, the potential applications and benefits of network enabling off-aircraft Support Equipment (SE)[5] are extensive:

  • Location Data. At a basic level, tracking the physical location of SE would improve control of equipment by the equipment manager.  The man hours expended searching for equipment across a large airfield would be eliminated, and assets would be less likely to be misappropriated.  Safety will also be improved as the possibility of ‘lost’ equipment not being correctly maintained but remaining in use will be greatly reduced. This can be achieved by attaching something akin to the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags currently in use on shipping containers[6], which can be active or passive in their network.
  • Real-Time Location Data. Tracking the location of SE location and usage in ‘real-time’ would enable task supervisors to better manage allocation of assets in time sensitive locations across dispersed areas, for example during air cargo handling or aircraft refuelling operations.  Extrapolating this further, location and tracking data could enable optimal management of activities such as Foreign Object Debris sweeping on aircraft operating surfaces (Foreign Object Debris (or FOD) can cause damage to aircraft or be ingested into propulsion systems with catastrophic results; regular sweeping is therefore required to reduce this risk on airfields)[7] and runway de-icing, especially coupled with additional data such as quantities of de-icing fluid dispensed.  A simple example of this concept is the FOD BOSS iPhone App[8], which enables GPS tracking and other data gathering for airfield sweeping.
  • Location Data and Telemetry. In addition to location, basic asset telemetry can be gathered and transmitted by network enabled SE.  Data such as running time, fuel level and serviceability status would enable intelligent scheduled maintenance based on actual usage, refuelling only when required and timely intervention with unserviceable assets.  Use of this data can lead to a more serviceable and better utilised fleet, and reduce nugatory maintenance work.

 

  • Fluid Delivery Telemetry. Aircraft and airfield de-icers, fuel bowsers and even waste vehicles can be fitted with networked sensors monitoring delivery and receipt of their cargo.  Application of this technology in the RAF logistic environment would enable the kind of optimised airfield de-icing application which is already generating considerable savings in the commercial sector, and even the real-time electronic control and billing of fuel employed by commercial airports (many foreign visiting aircraft are also billed by the RAF for uplifted fuel).
  • Advanced Telemetry. Many aircraft and performance vehicles have full on-board telemetry, sometimes referred to as Health and Usage Monitoring Systems (HUMS).  Networking these systems and enabling the data to be distributed can give a detailed picture of individual assets to remote viewers, and a full understanding across a fleet or indeed range of fleets of any measured metric.  An unlimited amount of data can be gathered of any parameter, for instance vibration data which might be indicative of mechanical degradation, load data which can enable analysis of optimal vehicle utilisation, or accelerometers measuring disturbance to a sensitive cargo.  An advanced example is the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS)[9] for F-35 Lighting II, which will transmit reporting codes in-flight and enable necessary spares and personnel to be pre-positioned as required.  Full ‘on-board’ telemetry of support equipment has the potential to enhance availability of an asset and optimise management of a fleet, though a balance is required between cost and benefit.
  • Vehicle Management Systems (VMS). VMS combine some of the functions already discussed, however are more focussed toward the equipment operator, typically for self-propelled assets such as Material Handling Equipment (MHE – fork lift trucks, aircraft handling equipment, high-rise platforms etc).  Fast becoming the industry standard, these systems can have a high degree of control over a vehicle and its use.  For instance, the system can; lock a vehicle such that only authorised users can operate it with their personal key, demand a full Daily Inspection (DI) process be met before operation, and use ‘geofencing[10]’ to define operation boundaries or speed limits in particular areas.  When networked, a VMS can enable fault reporting and communication between drivers and supervisors, as well comprehensive monitoring of metrics such as fuel efficiency, driver events and driver hours.  Information can also be gathered which can indicate the utilisation, productivity and behaviour of a particular driver.  These systems are in use and have demonstrated their value commercially in examples such as baggage handling at major airports, where a driver will spend entire shifts operating one vehicle.  Manufacturer case studies show that they enhance safety, accountability and productivity and provide considerable return of investment.  In the RAF logistic support environment, the safety and accountability features of VMS over a telemetry system are clear; however the same benefits to the RAF may not be as large as in the commercial environment due to the scale and nature of vehicle use, and may in fact limit flexibility.
  • Digital Tool Control. Tool control is essential in the Air environment to prevent inappropriate use of tools and, most importantly, ensure that no tools are left on aircraft on completion of work where they may cause restrictions of flight controls or other hazards during flight. Monarch Aircraft Engineering (MAEL) has introduced digital tool control at their new Maintenance Repair Organisation (MRO) locations in Birmingham, Luton and Manchester Airports[11].  Civilian tool control procedures differ slightly to that of the Military; however, the concept and technology remains suitable.  In partnership with Snap-On tools, TCMax Asset Management Software is integrated into network enabled tool cabinets, and personal identifiers are assigned to all users.  A record is created each time a tool is removed from a cabinet, which is linked to a specific individual, location, aircraft and work order.  This not only enables real-time accountability for all tools, but the software is also used to manage calibration requirements and report broken items.  Further, analysis of the data this system provides over time can allow assessment of inventory levels and monitor and enhance the engineering standards and practices of maintenance personnel.  Tool control standards are generally high in the RAF, however the system controlling Test and Measuring Equipment (TME) is an antiquated, standalone database[12], which technology such as this could replace and considerably enhance.  RAF tool control also relies on paperwork systems and allocating a technician to manage tool stores; introduction of a digital system such as this would speed up processes and free up manpower resources for other maintenance tasks.

Integration.  The hardware described above is readily available from SE manufacturers or can be retrofitted in most cases.  The advantage of an aftermarket option is the ability to utilise the same system across the array of equipment from numerous manufacturers which the RAF will continue to employ.  Industry partners who have the ability to provide the capabilities described have already expressed their interest in working alongside the MoD.  Funding small scale pilot schemes may provide suitable demonstrations of the concept to attract further investment, providing the benefits can be articulated.

Challenges. 

Introduction of these technologies and systems to the RAF logistic environment is not without challenges.  The most significant of these are as follows.

  • There is potential for network enabled assets to introduce vulnerabilities in the RAF logistic environment and indeed wider MoD.  This is true on 3 levels; the first being the reliance on a network and the impact of this network or connectivity being denied for any period.  Secondly, security of the data transmitted between networked enabled assets is also a potential vulnerability, particularly when it contains location data – most especially whilst deployed on operations.  The third aspect is the risk that a network may be compromised such that assets can be controlled or inhibited; further still, networked SE may provide a mechanism by which more significant networks might be accessed nefariously.  Appropriate safeguards against these treats are therefore paramount, as is engagement with RAF Communications, Information and Systems (A6) and Force Protection (A3) specialists.
  • Intellectual Property Rights. Many Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) offer network enabled SE, however they also tend to offer the proprietary management systems by which they communicate.  Consequently, software from one OEM may not interact with that of another due to simple compatibility or IPR constraints.  A third party system may overcome compatibility issues, however the problem then arises regarding the level of permissions an OEM is willing to grant.  Whilst there is an industry standard data bus, and typically all gathered telemetry will be ported to this bus, certain OEMs have already limited the data which can be gathered by any system other their own.  Functionalities such as asset fault reporting may therefore not be available, unless an OEM is willing to enable it.  Assuming a third party software system is opted for, the mitigation for RAF logistics is embedding compatibility into its requirements for new projects, and engagement with OEMs in order to agree proprietary access.
  • Electromagnetic Radiation Hazards (HERO)[13]. The use or presence of transmitters in the vicinity of sensitive explosives (WOME) is strictly controlled.  Whilst not insurmountable, the nature and characteristics of any network enabled system involving Radio Frequency transmissions must therefore be fully understood and approved before they can be used in the RAF logistic environment.  Numerous safeguarding mechanisms would need to be introduced in order that transmitters are appropriately controlled around WOME at its various states of susceptibility[14].  This would therefore require close collaboration with industry in order to obtain relevant information and engagement with armament specialists.

The above examples and benefits of network enabled SE have been intentionally bounded to real time or near real time applications.  However, to a degree corresponding to the complexity of the system, implementation of any such capability will also generate historical and fleet wide data over the period of operation.  Exploitation of this data represents an opportunity for a paradigm shift in RAF off-aircraft logistic support.  Realisation of this opportunity requires far more than installing digital hardware to SE, or linking it with even the most comprehensive management software; it will require new skill sets, robust investment, and indeed a considerable change in culture within the RAF and broader MoD.

Digital Data – Big Data and Data Analytics

Data[15] is of limited use unless given context or analysed against other relevant data.  In the RAF logistic support environment, data is readily available, and as has already been discussed can be relatively easily gathered and stored given appropriate investment.  The difficult step is how to interpret and use data to find value in it, this is especially so when considering large quantities of data.  In commercial aviation, exploitation of data has the potential to enhance an organisation’s use of its assets, capabilities and opportunities for commercial growth.  For example, analysis of large quantities of passenger data enables airlines to optimise their flight schedules, tailor products to individuals or a demographic and merge services offered, and even predict future demand beyond seasonal variation.  In aircraft engineering, historical and real time performance and telemetry data across an entire fleet can drive maintenance requirements and inform future design.  These are examples of data analysis on a very broad scale, often referred to as Big Data[16], and whilst they demonstrate the concept, they are arguably orders of magnitude beyond that of the current RAF logistic support environment.

Investment.  It must be recognised that considerable financial investment is required in order to realise the purported benefits of digitisation.  A PWC study of the impact of digitisation on industry suggests that leading adopters have invested around 5% per annum of their annual revenue in the hardware, systems and training required for digitisation.  The study also states that these organisations expect to recoup their investment within 2 years, however further investigation is required to establish whether this is indeed realised.

Personnel.  Data analytics, the underpinning principle behind ‘big data’, represents considerable opportunities for logistic support if the technologies, principles and human aspects are adopted appropriately.  Data analysis is carried out by data analysts; though an obvious statement this highlights a gap in the RAF’s current capabilities.  Half of the companies surveyed in a PWC Industry 4.0 paper[17] have established dedicated data analytics functions, which the RAF does not currently recruit or train for.  In order to exploit this capability, the RAF must develop a resource of data analysts or data scientists before any value can be withdrawn from investment, potentially requiring a new trade specialisation.  Exacerbating the issue further, industry research suggests strong competition for this resource in the commercial market[18].

Digital Culture.  Beyond simply recruiting data analysts, or outsourcing the skillset, the RAF as a whole will need to adapt before the value of digitisation and particularly data science can be realised.  Industry measures of digital intelligence are not well suited as a measure of the RAF or its logistic environment, however at this time it is unlikely they will score highly.  Training is critical, as is recruitment, perhaps targeted at the Digital Native[19], or “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.

Decision Support.  The value of data is often in the evidence it can provide to support decisions.  As a contrived example, a Defence Science and Technology Laboratories (DSTL)[20] study has been set to examine the lifecycle of Ground Support Equipment and establish optimal service lives; such a study would benefit from qualified data gathered from in-service SE during operation being extrapolated into predicting future requirements.

Successful Implementation

In order to successfully implement the technologies described, the first step is to trial a relatively low level asset tracking system and review the lessons of the trial and more importantly, ascertain the benefits.  A suitable trial of SE tracking could be carried out at a single Main Operating Base (MOB – an established RAF operating airfield) without significant difficulty, and with a relatively small investment.  Concerns such as weapon safety and security would have to be mitigated, however a level of risk could be acceptable during a trial period in order to gain better understanding of the threat.  A representative selection and quantity of SE assets being tracked for a 12 month period would demonstrate the feasibility of attaching and using tracking technology across an airfield and highlight shortcomings.  It should also provide benefit in its own right by immediately enabling improved asset management.  Such a trial could be expanded in scope to provide further proof of concept or suitability in different environments (Fast Jet – Fighter/Bomber MOB compared to a Large Aircraft  – transport, tanker or surveillance aircraft MOB).  Whilst initial trials should involve low technology tracking systems for simplicity, as new fleets of SE are brought into service, the trial might be extended into more comprehensive asset management technology as has been described.

Summary

New platforms such as the 5th Generation F-35 Lightning II and ever present – indeed ever increasing – financial constraints necessitate improvement of our ‘top line’ in terms of capabilities, as well as our ‘bottom line’ in terms of efficiencies.  Therefore, whilst remaining cognisant of the unique challenges of the military airfield operating environment, wherever possible the RAF logistic support community should consider the exploitation of the science and technology which is bringing significant benefit in the commercial sector.  The example of asset tracking and data analysis reviewed in this paper ranges from straightforward asset location, through Health and Usage Monitoring Systems (HUMS), to comprehensive data science.  In order to fully realise the benefits of these technologies, the MoD may have to develop and adapt on a number of fronts, including the people it recruits and the way in which it trains them.  The first steps towards exploring the feasibility of these technologies and demonstrating their benefits in order to successfully implement them, is to trial them and seek to learn the lessons and reap the rewards already well established amongst our commercial counterparts.

References and Further Reading:

  1. Oxford English Dictionary.
  2. Joint Doctrine Publication (JDP) 4-00, Logistics for Joint Operations. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/458596/20150721-DCDC_JDP_4_00_Ed_4_Logistics_Secured.pdf.

 

  1. The RAF Strategy – Delivering a World Class Air Force

http://www.raf.mod.uk/rafcms/mediafiles/B9FB695F_5056_A318_A8BC2CA5A1362C13.pdf.

 

  1. http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf.

 

  1. http://www.gartner.com/it-glossary/big-data/.

 

  1. http://www.dhl.com/content/dam/downloads/g0/about_us/logistics_insights/csi_augmented_reality_report_290414.pdf.
  2. http://www.pwc.com/gx/en/industries/industry-4.0.html.

 

  1. http://www.eu.id-systems.com/uk/benefits.

 

  1. http://www.pinnacle-air.com/aviation/get-the-overview.

 

  1. http://www.monarchaircraftengineering.com/News/Details/141.

 

  1. 2015/01/AS Lifecycle/DSTL (not publicly available).

 

[1] The Royal Air Force Strategy – Delivering a World Class Air Force.

[2] Logistics.  The science of planning and carrying out the movement and maintenance of forces. In its most comprehensive sense, the aspects of military operations which deal with: • design and development, acquisition, storage, movement, distribution, maintenance, evacuation and disposal of materiel; • transport of personnel; • acquisition or construction, maintenance, operation and disposition of facilities; • acquisition or furnishing of services; and • medical and health service support. JDP 4-00 (4th Edition).

[3] RAF Command Plan 2016.

[4] Weapons, Ordnance, Munitions and Explosives (WOME).  In this context, specifically those items which contain Electro-Explosive Devices (EED) or are vulnerable to accidental initiation due to Electromagnetic Interference (EMI).

[5] Support Equipment (SE) encompasses Ground Support Equipment (GSE), Air Cargo Handling Equipment (ACHE) and Material Handling Equipment (MHE).

[6] http://www.tracks360.com/tracking-applications/gps-container-tracking-cargo-tracking-container-tracking-devices/.

[7] FOD – Foreign Object Debris or Foreign Object Damage.

[8] FOD BOSS is a commercial FOD sweeping product which the RAF operates in numerous locations.  Details on FOD BOSS and the app can be found at http://www.aerosweep.com/resource/iphone-app/.

[9] Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS).  http://www.lockheedmartin.co.uk/content/dam/lockheed/data/gtl/documents/CS00086-55%20(ALIS%20Product%20Card).pdf

[10] Geo-fencing (geofencing) is a feature in a software program that uses the global positioning system (GPS) or radio frequency identification (RFID) to define geographical boundaries.

[11] http://www.aviationpros.com/article/11669502/new-aircraft-maintenance-hangar-new-maintenance-tools

[12] T-Track is a fit for purpose but old database system used to manage TME, which operates on a standalone network with limited support.

[13] Hazards of Electromagnetic Radiation to Ordnance (HERO).  See JSP 482.

[14] JSP 482 – MoD Explosive Safety Regulations, HERO, Table 1.

[15] Data: Facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis (OED).

[16] Big Data: “high-volume, high-velocity and/or high-variety information assets that demand cost-effective, innovative forms of information processing that enable enhanced insight, decision making, and process automation” (Gartner Inc.). Big Data is also generally perceived as terabytes or petabytes of information.

[17] Industry 4.0: Building the digital enterprise – Apr 2016.

[18] Gartner.  “…the demand for data and analytics resources will reach 4.4 million jobs globally, but only one-third of those jobs will be filled”.

[19] http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

[20] Reference: 2015/01/AS Lifecycle/DSTL.

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