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Wearable tech provides fast fixes for far-flung aviation repairs

March 17, 2017
Queensland-based aerospace company TAE saw disruption coming and grasped the bull by the headset: expanding the company’s business model, and revolutionising its operations with the development of fountx wearable assisted-reality technology to augment the capabilities of its field technicians.
The fountx system for providing remote-expert guidance recently made headlines when it won Aerospace Australia’s Civil Industry National Innovation Award.

Fountx leverages advanced human-computer interfaces in super-light and compact wearable technology. Developed in partnership with the CSIRO, it is scheduled to go into commercial production in mid-2017 and will enhance the capabilities of aviation repair-and-maintenance technicians everywhere by allowing them to share technical conundrums using a real-time audio-visual system, with an expert—who can be located anywhere.

GE is partnered with TAE in servicing the RAAF's fleet of Hornets, Super Hornets and Growlers.

The outcome is forecast to be more timely repair of grounded aircraft and potential savings of “tens of millions of dollars a year” across airlines and defence forces says TAE CEO, Andrew Sanderson.

Among the many cost-saving benefits of the technology, Sanderson foresees fewer flight delays, increased aircraft time on wing, reduced need to send specialists onsite for low-level issues, and reduced need to remove engines or components in the deployed or transit environment.

TAE executives envisage applying the fountx system in maintaining GE engines that power both commercial and defence aircraft. TAE is, for example, GE’s depot partner in servicing the RAAF’s GE F404-400 and F414-400 engines for Australia’s fleet of 71 Classic Hornets and 24 Super Hornets. Late last year a $232 million, eight-year extension of the partners’ total-logistics-support contract, brought the Growlers—the Air Force’s new airborne electronic attack aircraft— which are also powered by the F414-400, under the same wing of care.

Filling the expert-generation gap

Like many industrial engineering-based firms, TAE has experienced a decline in its workforce of employees with deep domain experience—they’re retiring and not being replaced in as great numbers partly because of improvements in engine reliability. Yet the aviation environment is expanding, and the need for maintenance along with it. A 2016-2035 global market outlook from Boeing forecasts a need for 679,000 new maintenance technicians over the 20-year period. Not all will require deep domain expertise, especially if they have fast, reliable access to expert reference points.

The largest turbine-engine maintenance provider in Australia, TAE’s 24/7 reach extends to airline operators, private pilots and defence forces in New Zealand, Indonesia, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Africa and North America.

“In the past,” says Laurence Beraldo, new technologies manager at TAE, “we may have had issues where we needed to assist operators in three different countries, and it would take one field-service rep probably a week to travel that. Now we can be in three countries in three hours if the customers have fountx on their platform.”

Assisted reality in the hangar, on the tarmac, in the field

Both the fountx-enabled technician in the field and the expert back at base are equipped with headsets. The technician’s headset features a cheekbone audio system—incoming voice and sound vibrate through the wearer’s jawbone, leaving ears free for protective ear-muffs in noisy environments—plus a high-definition camera, and high-resolution near-eye display.

“When humans aren’t sure of something a natural reaction is to look up—it’s believed that this movement reflects that we’re looking to the back of our mind for the required information,” says Beraldo. So the near-eye screen, which can display almost as much information as a desktop computer screen, is tilted out just above the eyebrow. Again, this leaves the user’s head free for a hard hat or sun visor, and the user can also wear prescription or safety glasses if required.

“Fountx is designed to enable full situational awareness”, in hazard-filled workplaces says Beraldo. He adds, “There’s no eye fatigue from looking through lenses, and all the weight has been removed from the headset, again, to eliminate wearer fatigue.” The headset gets its information and power via a laptop with a 6-hour working battery life, which the user carries in a compact, formfitting backpack.

Back at the expert station, the operator wears a headset for audio communications, and a high-definition camera is PC-mounted, designed to transmit whatever the operator brings up on a touchscreen in front of them—which may be the technician’s view (shared reality), a technical document, or image—and it shows the expert’s hand movements in relation to the screen.

Annotation software allows her or him to highlight parts of the picture for the technician, directing them through complex tasks.

“It feels like you’ve got a mentor or expert there with you, providing guidance,” says Beraldo.

Currently, fountx securely connects users through a variety of comms mechanisms, such as 3G and 4G phone networks and Wi-Fi (another product of CSIRO research and development), and TAE is confident of confirming satellite-based connectivity in coming weeks. The fact that the system runs on Microsoft’s Windows 10 platform also confers broad usability.

Generating long-distance overview of aviation repairs and maintenance

Tim Conroy has tried fountx from both the technician and the expert perspective and says it’s intuitive and easy to use. TAE’s project officer and project manager, Conroy was seconded from his current project, “managing the development of a health-and-usage monitoring system for army tank engines”, to also help trial fountx over the past 12 months. During that year the company continually refined the system—particularly improving screen size and definition—in response to user feedback.

TAE aerospace engineer Fiona Carter was one of several experts testing fountx wearable technology over the past 12 months. Fountx will allow her to assist multiple technicians in the field–no arduous travel schedule required—and gather a valuable overview to further streamline maintenance and improve efficiencies in the aviation industry.

Conroy sees many applications for the product. In his current project, which has people in the field carrying out condition monitoring of tank-engines, he says that from an expert perspective, “It would be beneficial to be able to have a live discussion with video, to understand what’s happening with the engine when technicians are called to minor tear-downs.” Sessions can also be saved for aggregated analysis.

TAE’s test cells—diagnostic machines which verify that a repaired or overhauled engine is fit for use—are often deployed overseas or in remote locations.

Says Conroy, “We can’t always send everyone who would offer the full breadth of technological expertise to the site at once, so the ability to call someone at a moment’s notice and provide a live video feed of the problem you’re experiencing to the person who does have specific technical knowledge would be very useful. Instead of relying on emails back and forth over days, we could potentially resolve the problem in a matter of minutes.”

TAE is initially developing and marketing fountx globally, to suit aviation, aerospace and defence industries. The move into marketing a commercial product in addition to providing services was at first viewed with suspicion by some TAE employees, says Conroy: “People thought, ‘We’re a gas-turbine MRO [maintenance, repair and overhaul] operation. How is this going to help us?’, but the tune of the organisation has changed through having people on the floor trialling the unit and seeing the possibilities it might provide.”

Beraldo says that the innovation-award win is an acknowledgement of all the effort TAE has devoted to developing and refining the product. “We’re very proud that it’s an Australian technology, and that something we saw would help our organisation run more efficiently can be taken to the rest of the world with that acknowledgement.”