The rise of the conscious aircraft

Advances in technology could enable a new generation of conscious aircraft able to anticipate problems and book themselves in for maintenance write Professor Ian Jennions and Jim Angus from Cranfield’s Integrated Vehicle Health Management (IVHM) Centre

Artist’s impression of Cranfield’s Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre (DARTeC) which includes a full-scale hangar laboratory. Image: Cranfield

For a global industry urgently looking for cost-savings, ‘conscious aircraft’ — that ‘know’ how they are feeling, anticipate problems and book themselves in for maintenance — will be a major breakthrough.

Currently, unscheduled maintenance is a source of huge costs for airlines and airports, as well as delays and cancellations for passengers. In 2017 alone this amounted to more than US$6.5 billion for wide body jets and US$5 billion for small regional jets. Conscious aircraft are expected to cut all maintenance costs by around a third.

The tech needed to deliver the idea is coming together. Trials are underway of inspection robots, as well as packages of sensors and AI to deliver the ‘consciousness’ needed to make good decisions.

But there are problems. As always with major innovation, there are issues around regulation. More immediately there is a data bottleneck in aviation: a lack of speed and capacity of data transfer (at least at a cost that makes business sense). By 2026, digital aviation is expected to demand the transfer of 98 billion gigabytes of data per year [[]]. If the industry is to benefit from the step-change in operational performance and costs then aviation, aircraft and airports, need a powerful new digital comms infrastructure.

Jim Angus, Commercial Director (left) and Professor Ian Jennions, Technical Director (right) from Cranfield University’s Integrated Vehicle Health Management (IVHM) Centre

Going back to the technology involved: the conscious aircraft principle uses self-sensing and communication technologies (similar to a human nervous system), avoiding problems caused by component degradation, unforeseen technical failures and human error. Monitoring current platform health, reliably predicting the remaining useful life of components and systems, and then automatically reconfiguring them to optimise their remaining useful life will obviously reduce costs. The capability overall will have a major impact on operational efficiency and also help with facilitating more sustainable fleet operations through the introduction of new technologies aimed at reducing emissions and environmental impact.

Conscious aircraft hangars will be data-driven and based around autonomous technologies, with inspections carried out using a combination of aerial and ground-based robotics. Systems could create their own orders for 3D printed replacement parts and aircraft would be able to plan visits to MRO facilities, the ‘lights out’ MRO hangars – automated facilities which only switch on when they are needed – will be hubs for remote maintenance engineers to engage with as needed. Drones equipped with visual/thermal systems that allow for non-destructive testing will fly around the aircraft structure to locate anomalies and problematic areas both externally and within the structure.

Cranfield’s Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre (DARTeC) includes a full-scale hangar laboratory, for example, is currently being used to investigate the use of cameras to inspect aircraft and control robots as they go around an airframe. Data from inspections are used alongside a digital twin simulation (virtual replicas of aircraft based on a full range of sensor data) for decision-making on airworthiness. The digital version of a conscious aircraft is due to be working by 2026; with an ultra-low maintenance prototype expected by 2035; in service by 2040.

Each day an aircraft is not in use costs an estimated £200,000, with maintenance overall being estimated to make up 10% of airline costs. In 2016, airlines spent US$62.1 billion on maintenance, repair and overhaul, a figure expected to reach US$90 billion by 2024. Minimising the time aircraft are on the ground for maintenance also reduces risks from collision damage. Ground operated collisions cost an average £350,000.

Integrated Vehicle Health Management and digital aviation has generally focused on delivering economic benefits, however, often they are strongly linked to environmental benefits. These include: improving the efficiency of MRO by reducing the number of maintenance operations; reducing disruption to airline operations caused by unforeseen technical faults or no-fault found events; minimising disruption caused by damage such as a bird impact. Environmental benefits include: reduced energy use, reduced pollution, reduced wastage and lower materials usage.

For any of this to be delivered, there has to be a reliable, real-time flow of data. Thousands of health parameters from each aircraft (on engine performance, pressures, rotor speeds, temperatures, vibration) need to be communicated to the ground for full health monitoring. But our ability to find affordable ways to transmit, process and make sense of the data has not kept pace. It’s just a tidal wave of information which could and should be useful — and still there’s a nagging sense among engineers that other and more useful data is yet to be tapped into.

The sector needs more actionable data, which will, in turn, smooth the way for the regulation needed for a global fleet of conscious aircraft. We can’t afford to allow the speed and capacity of data transfer to prevent a transformation that will be a key to future viability.

Professor Ian Jennions, Technical Director, and Jim Angus, Commercial Director, Integrated Vehicle Health Management (IVHM) Centre, Cranfield University,