Aircraft mechanic at work

Why digitalisation will be at the heart of recovery for aerospace and defence

Image credit: Dreamstime

The aerospace industry remains optimistic about its ability to recover from the impact of Covid-19. Robotics, the Internet of Things, assisted reality and edge computing are just some of the technologies which companies are relying on to resume operations in a post-coronavirus world.

The coronavirus pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for every industry. One of the sectors in the eye of the storm is aerospace and defence, with global air traffic having been brought to an almost complete standstill during the outbreak. As airlines sold fewer tickets, owing to travel restrictions or travellers’ fears, the industry that makes flying possible faced a reckoning.

Aerospace and airline executives remain optimistic in the future of the industry: 89 per cent of those surveyed earlier this year (as part of a virtual event organised by Inmarsat Aviation and APEX) believe the industry will recover, with 69 per cent predicting it will emerge fundamentally changed for the better. While it’s difficult to say what that will mean and how long it might take, it is likely that digitalisation, focused on facilitating greater efficiency and automation of production, will drive aviation’s return to profitable growth.

One of the consequences of Covid-19 will be the use of digitalisation to reduce the frequency and duration of human-to-human contact, helping organisations to comply with social-distancing measures. The Internet of Things (IoT) will be a key driver here and will play a critical role in empowering connected devices to support this need.

However, there are still a number of challenges that industry needs to overcome to ensure digital tools can function successfully – not least around the management of the vast swathes of data created by IoT solutions. Businesses will need to tackle these by introducing other technologies into the mix, such as edge computing.

The coronavirus pandemic has created a situation where there is a clear and compelling case for aerospace and defence companies to leverage the capabilities of many digital solutions. Automation and robotics, through the adoption of IoT, will likely become a core competence of every company that operates within the industry in the foreseeable future, from established equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to smaller suppliers.

There is also a significant opportunity for aerospace and defence companies to gain from wearable technologies, such as assisted-reality (AR) smart glasses. AR refers to projecting additional information into a user’s field of vision - most importantly, hands-free. Industries reliant on field workers are increasingly adopting assisted reality smart glasses to empower workers and streamline workflows. In aerospace, AR solutions are already actively enhancing aircraft maintenance and production by enabling a range of hands-free tasks and processes.

For example, smart glasses equipped with ‘See-What-I-See’ functionality allow an on-site aircraft mechanic, who might have run into difficulty in a time or safety-critical inspection or repair decision, to connect with a wider pool of remote experts and receive valuable support and guidance to complete a task. Additional capabilities from AR smart glasses can be accessed where and when they are needed, without disrupting the mechanic’s workflow.

Other examples available at the worker’s fingertips include document retrieval; receiving new workflow instructions; real-time video and image capture, as well as accepting new product updates. These remote-control capabilities are increasingly important for facilitating greater efficiency, reducing the frequency and duration of human-to-human contact in the current health climate.

Any adoption of automation and robotics driven by Covid-19 will bring various challenges. First, it’s important that businesses can effectively manage and process the huge amounts of data being pushed through these robotic and IoT devices, while at the same time deriving insights from the data which could improve future operations. With many companies within the aerospace supply chain still reliant on human operators, they not only need to consider what existing technology stack they have to handle these new data-intensive technologies, but also whether they can afford both the time and resources investment required should an upgrade be required.

Introducing newer concepts like edge computing will play an important role within the aerospace and defence industry’s IT ecosystem, especially post-Covid. Consider, for example, when a mechanic is using AR smart glasses to get help from remote colleagues. If latency occurs and receiving information from the device is delayed, the mechanic’s productivity can be significantly reduced and even cause errors. Edge computing offers a solution here by relocating data processing closer to the device at the edge of the network, eliminating lag and therefore reducing incidences of network-related failure. At the same time, it creates new methods of gathering, analysing and redistributing data and helps boost processing power to the edge of the network where the device is. 

Ultimately, digitalisation has an essential role to play within the aerospace and defence industry both now and in the future. This has only been heightened because of the Covid-19 pandemic and an after-effect has been the realisation that the industry needs to emerge stronger, smarter and more prepared for future downturns. However, before the widespread automation through IoT devices and robotics can be implemented, organisations need to be confident they have the infrastructure in place to support and maximise such technologies.

Edge computing negates the need to revamp the entire technology architecture, proving particularly beneficial as budgets will be tight during the recovery stages of the pandemic. This will, in turn, allow businesses to benefit from the potential IoT promises, but on a larger scale and with minimal changes to, or impact on, current systems.

Nick Offin is head of sales, marketing and operations with Dynabook Northern Europe

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