Published: November 4, 2015 - 10:55

Industry 4.0 and Air Traffic: A 360-degree view is imperative

In 2010, an A380 (wikipedia.Airbus_A380) from the Australian airline Qantas suffered severe engine damage shortly after takeoff in Singapore. One of the turbine disks broke and its parts severed the fuel tanks and hydraulic lines. The incident was caused by a stress fracture in a single oil pipe, which triggered a chain reaction. The good news: The plane landed safely despite having caught fire, and nobody was hurt. The bad news: What happened to that oil pipe can happen to any of the other remaining four million parts of an A380. This means four million potential sources of danger.

For an industry whose success hinges to a huge degree on having the trust of its customers, it is absolutely essential to uphold the highest quality standards in production and to ensure continuous maintenance of all components. A single microscopic inaccuracy in the production or a momentary lapse in attention by an overtired service technician can destroy this trust in the blink of an eye.

With the increasing use of modern digital technologies in the aerospace industry, a new era in quality assurance has dawned. Thanks to Machine-to-Machine technology (M2M, also known as the Internet of Things or Industry 4.0), processes can be carried out with greater efficiency and new areas of business can be launched. Intelligent systems also ensure that aircraft parts will be monitored continuously.

Currently, airlines are using a system called Engine Condition Monitoring (ECM) , in which each aircraft linked to the system transmits a comprehensive batch of data every three to four hours that provides information to the ground staff on the state of the engine. Risks and irregularities can be detected early and costly repairs reduced. With M2M, which essentially cross-links each and every individual airplane component by means of sensors, a virtually endless amount of information about the plane’s current status is created, and historical data is incorporated to continuously predict and analyze trends and tendencies.

It is unequivocal that M2M creates plenty of challenges for its operators. Interconnectivity comes with an increased risk of possible attacks - a security problem that not only the aerospace branch will need to address. The other essential challenge is the colossal amount of data that is transmitted every second and which needs to be analyzed in real time. Current big data systems can already handle quite a bit. The rapid development of Industry 4.0 in all sectors of economy and society will cause the demands on IT infrastructures (computing power and storage are two obvious examples) to increase exponentially.

M2M is not enough

Paradoxical as it sounds: The data that arrives via the sensors in an M2M solution makes up only a modest part of the information that is actually available about any single part or component. Generally, there is plenty of other relevant data scattered throughout hundreds of applications, maintenance protocols, technical documentation, not to mention all the knowledge stored in the minds of the technicians and specialists. This means that any one engineer or department knows only a small fraction of the theoretically usable information.

In order to get a complete picture of every potential source of risk to an airplane - a prerequisite for the safest possible operation - a system is needed that collects and unifies all the relevant data under one roof and makes it readily available.

This system is called enterprise search, a technology closely related to big data. Enterprise search collects scattered information and links it to create a complete picture, which it provides to the user automatically at the touch of a button. The technology incorporates all sources and data formats, be they PDFs from the purchasing department, a construction drawing from the CAD system, or e-mail threads between service technicians and producers. Thanks to semantic analysis, enterprise search establishes relations amid all available data and creates a previously unimaginable 360-degree view of each individual component - a huge step forward for producers and operators.

However, the biggest beneficiaries of this technology are the passengers themselves, who want nothing more than to land safely.