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AR in MRO – Aerospace

You might be surprised to know that Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality were first conceptualized in 1950s – 1960s. While the first commercial VR headset was released in 1995, the practical use of AR started with the development of smartphones and other mobile devices in the 2000s. Mixed Reality (MR), a relatively late entrant is a newer technology that is still under development.

AR is a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user's view of the real world, thus providing their composite view. AR can be used to overlay information on top of the real world, such as directions, labels, or even 3D models.

Virtual reality (VR) is a technology that creates a simulated environment that a user can interact with. VR headsets block out the real world and immerse the user in a virtual environment.

Mixed reality (MR) is a combination of AR and VR. MR headsets allow users to see both the real world and the virtual world, and to interact with both.

AR is often used for tasks that require the user to interact with the real world, such as navigation, gaming, and training. VR is often used for tasks that require the user to be immersed in a virtual environment, such as gaming and entertainment. MR has the potential to be useful for a wide range of applications, such as education, healthcare, and manufacturing. For the purpose of this article, we will focus on how AR can benefit Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (abbreviated to MRO) in the aerospace sector.

Aerospace – an Overview
The aerospace sector is a broad term that encompasses the design, development, manufacturing, operation, and support of aircraft, spacecraft, and related systems. The aerospace industry is a subset of the aerospace sector that focuses on the commercial aspects of the industry, such as the production and sale of aircraft and spacecraft. The aerospace sector is a major driver of economic growth and innovation. It is responsible for crores of rupees in revenue and employs millions of people around the world. The aerospace industry is also essential for national security, as it provides the technology and systems that are used for defence and intelligence purposes.

Some of the subsectors of the aerospace industry include commercial aviation, military aviation, space exploration, defence, avionics, materials, manufacturing and services. These services include maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) of aircrafts. Such MRO activities can include:
  • Safety: Safety is paramount in aviation. Proper maintenance and timely repairs are essential to ensure that aircraft remain in airworthy condition. MRO activities help identify and address potential issues before they become safety hazards, reducing the risk of accidents.
  • Inspection: Aircraft are inspected for damage or defects. This can be done visually, using non-destructive testing (NDT), or using a combination of both methods.
  • Maintenance: While routine maintenance is undertaken according to a predetermined schedule, unscheduled maintenance is needed when issues like wear and tear, accidents, or improper maintenance are detected.
  • Repair: Damaged or defective components are repaired or replaced. Well-maintained aircraft are more reliable and have fewer disruptions due to technical issues.
  • Overhaul: Aircraft components are disassembled, cleaned, inspected, and reassembled.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Aviation authorities around the world - like Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in India - have strict regulations governing the maintenance and airworthiness of aircraft. Compliance with these regulations is mandatory, and MRO facilities play a vital role in ensuring that aircraft meet these standards.
  • Asset Longevity: Aircraft are expensive assets with long lifespans. MRO activities help extend the lifespan of aircraft by addressing wear and tear, corrosion, and fatigue. Proper maintenance and repairs can significantly increase the operational life of an aircraft, saving airlines and operators considerable capital.
  • Technological Advancements: The MRO industry drives innovation in technologies and practices, such as predictive maintenance using data analytics and the adoption of more efficient and eco-friendly materials and processes.

So where does AR come into play in MRO services? For a variety of reasons, which include:
  • Remote assistance: AR can be used to provide remote assistance to technicians who are working on aircraft. This can be done by overlaying instructions and information on the technician's view of the aircraft, which can help them to troubleshoot problems and complete repairs more quickly and efficiently. AR can then be used to provide step-by-step instructions for maintenance tasks. This can help to improve safety and reduce the risk of errors.
  • Training: AR can be used to create interactive training simulations for technicians. This can help them to learn new skills and procedures more quickly and effectively.
  • Inspection: Inspection of aircraft for damage or defects can be done using AR. This can be done by overlaying 3D models of the aircraft on the technician's view, which can help them to identify problems that would be difficult to see with the naked eye.
  • Repairing: By overlaying instructions and information on the technician's view, AR can help them to focus on the task at hand and avoid mistakes, leading to faster and more accurate repairs.
  • Data Visualization: AR can visualize complex data, such as engine performance metrics or aircraft diagnostics, in an intuitive manner, making it easier for engineers and technicians to understand and analyze the performance.
  • Collaboration: By breaking down the barriers of distance and time, AR allows engineers from all over the world to collaborate seamlessly on projects regardless of their physical location. AR does this by providing a shared virtual space where experts can work together on projects in real time.

AR has the potential to revolutionize the way MRO is performed in the aerospace sector. It can help to improve safety, efficiency, and accuracy, and it can also help to reduce the cost of maintenance. And this is not a future scenario – established aviation companies are already using AR for MRO operations like remote assistance, interactive training simulations, inspection of aircraft for damage or defects, providing step-by-step instructions for maintenance tasks, and so on. With ongoing advancements in AR technology, it is likely to play an increasingly important role in improving efficiency, safety, and productivity in aerospace operations.

While the specific skill sets that are required to develop AR in MRO vary depending on the tasks that are being performed, engineering skills in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and software engineering are needed to develop AR apps for MRO. And yes, testing, training and support skills are needed as well once the AR app is developed. In addition to these technical skills, engineering companies that are developing AR in MRO also need to have a strong understanding of the MRO industry. This includes the challenges that MRO technicians face, as well as the potential benefits of AR for the industry. Only a few engineering companies in India have the tech savvy and the experience to provide all this under one roof; those aerospace companies that want to develop AR apps for MRO would do good to outsource their requirement to such companies.