By S.L. Fuller | March 8, 2018
Helicopters are expensive to operate. The hunt has been on for decades to find ways to bring down costs while maintaining safety, and that motivation has borne several technologies.
One of those advancements is analytics. Health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS) and other diagnostic products have the ability to provide data on the current state of systems and functions on the aircraft. While undoubtedly useful, the rotorcraft industry is asking for more.
“We've got about 150 aircraft in our fleet,” said CHC Helicopter SVP of Engineering and Operations Dave Balevic. “And today, health and usage monitoring systems for us — it's really a ‘go, no go,’ so it's a very primitive source of information for us.”
Extracting the data is also a relatively primitive process, he continued during a panel hosted by R&WI with Sentient Science at Heli-Expo in Las Vegas last week. Getting the data from the aircraft to a computer is a manual process. When the data is finally uploaded, it’s up to the operator to make sense of it and apply it to operations. Balevic said CHC sometimes challenges itself to pull more from the data than simply “is the aircraft OK to fly again.”
“I think that's the dilemma right now — we're not asking the right questions. I've got a lot of questions. I don't have answers that are coming to me,” he said. “We're not using the data right now to actually do as much trending as I think we should.”
There is such thing as too much data, if not delivered efficiently enough. Honeywell Director of Marketing, Services and Connectivity Phil Herman — also on the “How Digitalization is Transforming the Aerospace Industry” panel — noted how some conversations today concern how to turn analytics into actions from “wealths” of data. The customer is left sorting through the data or left to engage a third party to do it.
“But in addition to that, I think something we often miss is, do we produce a Ph.D. answer, or do we produce a pragmatic one? Does [the data] tell you [what] to go fix or point you in the direction to do it? Or is it just a beautiful graph with a nice thesis about what the problem is?” Herman said. “If I look at really where we're driving, it's better analytics. But it's a better way to put the answer in the hands of ultimately the person who has to maintain the aircraft and do something with it.”
Bell, which offers HUMS on several of its aircraft, agreed. Bell Director of Engineering Innovation Scott Drennan admitted that the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) has struggled with giving customers real-time data and eliminating the need for that manual download. Some systems on board the military Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey can give the pilot actionable data. But, the real solution is still to come.
“What I'd like to see change about HUMS — HUMS is a very generic parameter that you always have to correlate to a specific area that you're really interested in,” Drennan said. “I think a group like Sentient [makes] that correlation tighter and more efficient.”
Sentient Science has a product called DigitalClone, which is cloud-based software that uses materials-based computational testing to monitor the short, medium and long-term prognostics of the critical components within the drivetrain. Through simulations of trade-off and sensitivity studies, new materials testing and design optimization recommendations, Sentient works with both the operators and the OEMs for long-term sustainment of aircraft. The company’s VP of aerospace, Jason Rios, uses a comparison to the medical field to illustrate what service Sentient Science is providing:
A person who is concerned about having a heart attack can hook up to a heart monitor to get the earliest indication of when something's about to happen. But most people, Rios said, would rather engage a cardiologist to consider other factors, like family history, lifestyle, individual risks and other factors, as well as provide advice to avoid a heart attack and extend life. Sentient Science can do that for rotating equipment.
“There are opportunities to use what we know about the design or the materials to extend the life of those gearboxes and transmissions before we have to rely on the feedback from sensors,” Rios said during the panel. “We think there are opportunities to really extend the life of those systems in a meaningful way without having to continue to expand the amount of data that's being collected. We approach it from the first principles perspective in being able to look at the response of those materials and how they're going to eventually fail.”
Predictive analytics is going to be “absolutely huge and critical” to the future of urban air mobility, according to Uber Engineering Director of Aviation Mark Moore. On the panel to give a perspective from the 2020s and beyond, Moore said the aircraft in the UberAir model are fully digital. This includes the flight control systems, battery control, electric bus architecture, motor control and more.
“It's kind of a new world where we can … be able to predict very much into the future where the issues are and be able to manage for our on-demand networks — not scheduled, but on demand where everything is changing,” Moore said. “And these vehicles need to be relatively interconnected all the time across these systems talking to our network operations center all the time in real time.”
Balevic continually reminded the other panelists that predicting failures is not the only use for these types of monitoring systems. Right now, he said, CHC doesn’t have feedback informing the operator about how to fly the aircraft to increase efficiency in fuel and extend the lives of the parts.
“Let's not forget that there's a lot of opportunity out there to learn how to do things better,” Balevic said. “So let's not make it all [avoiding] the downside.”
How does the industry get to a point where it can reap all the benefits from data? Condition-based maintenance is one item on Balevic’s wish list. A few things need to happen first, according to the panel. Drennan suggested lighter weight hardware that doesn’t require significant investment. Other hurdles are data rights and de-identification of data. Balevic said de-identification is not a concern for CHC. It leverages flight data monitoring alongside its HUMS. But for others, rights and privacy are concerns that maybe are not being addressed correctly.
“I'm going to take responsibility for it as a service provider to folks like Dave,” Drennan said. “We have not done the right job explaining to our customers the benefit of what we can give back to them when we have their data, and we put them through these analytical systems. The value proposition conversation is not there in either being ready for events where they need service, being ready to extend life because given one operator is gentle on their vehicle; one is not so much. We need to do a better job as the OEM providing that value proposition. And then the trust border will open up, and we'll put the best analytics we have on it to give the right answers.”
Check out the full video to hear more about these subjects and more, courtesy of Sentient Science.