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When Wearables meets Context-Aware in A&D Maintenance

ifsAccording to recent Forrester research, 68 percent of global technology and business decision-makers say that wearables are a priority for their firm. Wearables can sense the user’s physical environment much more completely than ever before, which makes them excellent platforms for in-field A&D maintenance engineers needing to meet tight turn-around schedules under increased time pressure.

In the piece below, Brendan Viggers, product and sales support at the IFS Aerospace & Defence Centre of Excellence, explains how groundbreaking developments in wearables and context-aware technology can streamline A&D maintenance operations and empower the supply chain.

A&D support, whether that is maintenance, engineering, supply or transportation, is complicated by the challenges of distance from the home base, environmental and operating pressures, and even cultural constraints in deployed operating areas. Maintenance in the field is very different from at the depot or base. Being aware of these unique environments will enable support solutions to be tailored in a more effective way. Ground breaking developments in wearables and context-aware technology will streamline A&D maintenance operations and empower the supply chain. Brendan Viggers, product and sales support at the IFS Aerospace & Defence Centre of Excellence, explains.

Maintenance activity requires, as a basic minimum, the right information and technical support with the right functionality to support operations, so it is a no-brainer that this needs to be tailored for the environment where the maintenance is taking place. For many years vendors have deployed solutions forwards that are manifestly complex, full enterprise solutions on mobile devices. But in-field maintenance bears little or no similarity to that back at base, the environment is unique and often extreme. Time pressure is often increased for field engineers who have to meet tight turn-round schedules, and have the right technical documentation and direction to hand, dependent on the task and time. In unique, and often restrictive, maintenance environments full enterprise solution functionality can become a hindrance to field engineers – tailored functionality for the specific environment is critical to meeting operational deadlines.

The need for tailored information and functionality
Speedy resolution of unusual problems can be massively enhanced if equipment and those in support can understand the multiple contexts the field engineer is encountering. These include ‘user’ context such as the user’s profile, location, people nearby, even the current social situation; ‘physical’ context such as lighting, noise levels, traffic conditions and temperature; and ‘time’ context such as time of a day, week, month, and season of the year at the deployed location; and finally an ‘operational’ context to monitor elements such as spare part availability and the maintenance task at hand.

This is where wearables and context-aware technology enter the fray. According to recent Forrester research, 68 percent of global technology and business decision makers say that wearables are a priority for their firm, with 51 percent calling it a moderate, high or critical priority.

The relationship between wearables and context-aware applications is symbiotic. Wearables can sense the user’s physical environment much more completely than previously possible, and in many more situations. This makes them excellent platforms for applications where the computer is working even when you aren’t giving explicit commands. Future developments will introduce increased use of solutions that will automatically tailor their presentation and operation through recognition of the maintenance environment it is in.

Context-Aware and Wearables in action – Civil Aviation
In the base environment, there are opportunities for application of the technology across production, quality assurance, safety, warehousing and logistics – for example, wearables can increase worker agility. Supporting the location of faulty wires or equipment on a grounded aircraft, and notifying workers about hazards such as the presence of other activities being conducted on the aircraft, are areas that could be addressed right now. Boeing is currently experimenting with augmented reality for aircraft maintenance, a hands-free device instructs workers where to find a product in the inventory.

This could be extended to giving mechanics virtual ‘sight’ of components hidden behind other systems or structures relative to their personal location – allowing them to remove, fit or adjust a component that they cannot physically see.

The instant effect on maintenance repair and overhaul (MRO)
Wearables with augmented reality have the potential to automatically identify the spare part required by a field engineer. Information on the appearance, known context and maintenance task required can then be fed through to the engineer’s wearable device negating the need to barcode scan or consult technology documents in difficult maintenance environments – such as a dark submarine bilge or the underbelly of an aircraft – where movement is limited. It also removes the requirement for the intimate support of a base supply chain and logistician. This comes with the added bonus of not having to trek kilometers across an airfield to access catalogues in a maintenance hangar or planning office.

With context-aware and wearable technology cross-matching bar codes, stock or part numbers – or even better integrating with electronic technical documents – the engineer can ensure that the right item is demanded or fitted, with the benefit of reducing time consuming document and database searches that introduce a greater opportunity for error. Increased autonomy thanks to wearables and context-aware computing means the maintenance engineer spends less time ‘downing tools’ to consult collateral material, improving overall MRO efficiency.

Expertise on demand
Wearables can also be used for maintenance, repairs and over-the-shoulder coaching for remote engineers. Cargo and maintenance personal from a major airline have trialled the use of an optical head-mounted display (OHMD) to help inspect aircraft on the tarmac. They capture video and photos and send them to a central office where technical safety professionals assess an aircraft’s condition.

IFS is working with XM Reality™ to bring forward a remote expert to assist in complex maintenance to broaden the capabilities of maintenance engineers on the ground – ‘augmenting’ flight-line workers’ skills. IFS believes adding cognitive applications and voice-controlled intelligent agents similar to Siri to wearable devices would further augment such workers’ skills, helping them identify and act on specific problems with more autonomy.

Consumer-led developments for A&D
With device development enabling us to monitor activity in more detail, user context-awareness will be included in consumer devices to an ever-increasing degree. Imagine what could be achieved if technologies like cameras and the Kinect – a motion-sensing input device by Microsoft for the Xbox One video game console – were included in appliances and devices in your base maintenance facility or field location. Recognising where people are and what they do will enable designers to create attentive applications that look at what is going on and react appropriately. For example, teleporting – sometimes called “follow- me” computing – is a tool available today to dynamically map the user interface onto the resources of the surrounding computer and communication facilities in office complexes.

In a maintenance environment, this could be adapted so that relevant applications can ‘follow’ a worker moving around maintenance locations or even different equipment and process bays in an aircraft, and be available as required. The maintenance station will recognise which member of your maintenance team is going to use it based on identity tag or even body profile, and preselect that person’s authorised maintenance or repair task schedules. If directly linked to equipment health monitors, it could automatically add high priority preventative maintenance tasks to a repair schedule being undertaken in the same location.

So What?
CCS Insight predict that there will be up to 100million smartphone companions such as smartwatches by 2017. Research from Business Insider Intelligence indicates the global wearables market will grow at an annual compound rate of 35 percent over the next five years.

The advance of wearable technology seems unstoppable, but it isn’t a new revolution – witness the use of emergency buttons to call for help after a fall. Its deployment has simply taken off over the past few years. We all understand that wearable blood glucose, heart rate, blood pressure monitors can help people stay healthier for longer. In A&D, future wearable technology must be demonstrably useful – both needed and wanted. To be wanted, we have got to have valuable applications that will benefit wearables and be contextually aware – only then can we truly demonstrate a real return on investment that warrants change and adoption of the technology.

Empowerment and the future with wearables
The key to this is not so much wearables, but the context-aware applications that are accessed by or loaded onto them. Making applications more social and user friendly through context-aware wearable technology will surely be the way forward. Mobile applications, as a front end to powerful enterprise platforms, can be developed and made context-aware in very short order. Our experience shows that it is possible to develop and deliver mobile applications specific to a user’s requirements often in weeks rather than the traditional ERP software application that takes months or even years to deploy. In the forward space these apps must be optimised with functionality for the engineer depending on the operational environment. Overloading an engineer with full IS solution functionality doesn’t make sense. Mobile apps offer a solution to the problem of gaining essential feedback of operational information without inundating the engineer – they must be task-specific, in a recognisable format, optimised for specific equipment, easy to customise and devoid of superfluous overhead.

The ability to add operational data relating to flight, crew and vehicle in real-time adds real value to ERP. IFS is currently deploying a range of mobile apps, the next step would be to port mobile apps on to a wearable device that is sufficiently context-aware so automatically records when and where a fault is logged – saving valuable time by negating the need for the engineer to ‘down tools’ in order to log on to a laptop or handheld device to gain access to back-office information.

Innovative wearable technology has matured over the past decades from ‘fall monitors’ to truly interactive, context-aware support tools. We can give operators direct support at their fingertips, in their ears or in front of their eyes, and also intimately understand the challenges they are facing. The development of hardware and sensors to ‘socialise’ the technology is about to take off, but these are really just delivery and input points for information that allows context-tailored applications to link users to powerful enterprise processes.

The immediate benefits of delivering powerful computer support directly to users, and capturing contextual information to improve enterprise-level knowledge offers exciting opportunities in the immediate future to streamline MRO activity and allow supply chains to get ahead of the game. IFS is at the forefront of integrating innovative wearable and context-aware technology with an agile A&D ERP application which streamlines support and, critically, reduces costly operational downtime. The result is aircraft spend more time in the air with maintenance support tailored to suit any environment, at any time.

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