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2017 saw another positive year in commercial aviation with a surge in air passenger numbers and new aircraft orders as well as reports of being the safest year in commercial aviation history.

Yet despite these positives, airlines continue to strive for improvement in the costly area of maintenance, where airlines spend more money than on fuel or crew. I expect there to be some major disruptors for airlines and MROs in the coming year. Here’s what I think is in store for them in 2018.

Drones: the autonomous inspector

Six hours–that’s the average time it takes to visually inspect a commercial aircraft. Although this might not sound like a long time for such an important job, drones have the potential to drastically cut this time while lowering costs and boosting accuracy. easyJet has been trialing drones for known or unknown fuselage inspections for some time now and is looking to fully implement the solution for hail and lightning strike damage in 2018.

Developments are also being made to automate these inspections. Maintenance engineers would still control the flight of the drone, but by using visual processing algorithms combined with enterprise IT systems, the drone would send work orders straight to the maintenance crew as soon as a fault is identified.

But challenges remain: drones need to receive FAA approval and regulations change from country to country. Operational complications, such as security safeguards, communication with air traffic and airport authorities, provide further barriers that also need to be considered. Despite these hurdles, there is growing appetite for the use of the technology, so expect to see more drones flying around maintenance hangars if industry regulations can be met in 2018.

Airlines get SaaS-y with mobility

The cloud isn’t just being sought after for artificial intelligence (AI) – cloud services also go hand in hand with mobility. IFS commercial aviation research identified mobile computing as one of the top five areas for investment in 2018, with over 30 percent of respondents identifying mobile as being a key driver of digital transformation.

The transformation to a software-as-a-service (SaaS) and the mobile environment is driving this trend, as SaaS solutions produce new efficiencies for commercial aviation operations ─ particularly for line maintenance execution and planning. The ability to purchase cloud-based software instead of on-premise software and access it through a mobile device is also helping allay previous concerns around the amount of physical hardware needed to adopt new technologies. Cloud-based solutions can be rolled out to a mobile workforce with no physical installation required, meaning airlines can focus on the value they receive rather than the infrastructure they need – removing a barrier to change.

IFS is actively supporting airlines in their move toward SaaS. We are currently collaborating with IFS Maintenix customers on the design and development of new cloud-based solutions that are set to come to market in the first half of 2018, beginning with a focus on the critical maintenance planning domain.

Prepare for the birth of digital twins

Digital twins is a state-of-the-art method that has the potential to drastically reduce maintenance costs. As the name suggests, digital twins create a virtual replica of a physical asset using data points and IoT devices implemented during the design and manufacturing phase. GE recently helped develop the world’s first digital twin for an airplane’s landing gear, placing sensors on typical failure points to provide real-time data and diagnose its remaining lifecycle.

By monitoring the digital twin, organizations can monitor asset health as well as receive early warnings, predictions and even a plan of action by simulating ‘what-if’ scenarios – based on weather, performance, operations and other variables – to help keep equipment in service for longer.

According to IDC, companies that invest in digital twins will see a 30 percent improvement in cycle times of critical processes, including maintenance. In 2018, expect to see more benefits as the technology matures.

AI puts predictive maintenance to the test

Much like drones, AI is starting to invade the skies. SITA claims half of the airlines surveyed will invest in AI and cognitive computing in the next three years, with predictive maintenance touted as one of the biggest opportunities from the technology. An Oliver Wyman report suggested that, by reducing the need for routine maintenance and only triggering repairs when needed, predictive analytics can help increase fleet availability by up to 35 percent and reduce labor costs by 10 percent.

One of the biggest challenges facing AI adopters is that storing and analyzing vast quantities of data can overwhelm legacy IT systems – something that the next generation of cloud solutions are helping with. Cloud solutions are now able to process this data, meaning everything from predictive maintenance to in-flight performance and the real-time aging of the aircraft can be better tracked and understood.

As digitalization further transforms business models, the application of advanced analytical methods from AI will no longer just be good to have – it will soon be business critical.

Aviation flying high

IFS research confirmed that aviation leads in the take-up of new technologies for digital transformation and, although some of these technologies may be in their infancy, the commercial aviation industry is fully aware of the potential benefits they will bring. Watch out for these developments as they move from early adoption to proven solutions in 2018 at

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