Internet of Business speaks to Professor Antonios Tsourdos about Cranfield University’s new DARTeC research centre for digital aviation technology.
The newly opened £65 million Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre (DARTeC) at Cranfield University is on a journey to explore a number of key challenges facing the aviation industry. These include increasing the efficiency of airports through technological advances; creating safe, secure shared airspace through secure data communication infrastructures; and increasing the reliability and availability of aircraft through self-sensing, self-aware technologies.
DARTeC is funded by a consortium of leading aerospace and aviation companies including Thales, Raytheon, SAAB, Monarch Aircraft Engineering Limited, Boeing UK and Aveillant – as well as Cranfield University itself. The Centre is also benefiting from £15.5m of funding from the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund (UKRPIF), a scheme led by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).
High hopes, soaring aspirations
Internet of Business spoke to Professor Antonios Tsourdos, Head of the Autonomous and Cyber-Physical Systems Centre and Director of Research in the School of Aerospace, Transport and Manufacturing at Cranfield University, about DARTeC and Cranfield’s aspirations for the new unit.
IoB: DARTeC has an impressive array of industry backers. What are they hoping to gain from DARTeC – and what is the wider vision of the project?
Professor Antonios Tsourdos (AT): There are emerging new digital technologies that have great potential for transforming air transport for passengers – improving the experience, reliability, safety, sustainability, as well as profitability for the industry as a whole. But these tend to be individual strands of technology, pockets of innovation in areas like in-flight and on-ground autonomy; paperless maintenance and repairs; seamless passenger handling; connected cabin sensors; urban air space management.
The importance of DARTeC to this situation, and why there has been early and ongoing financial support from major organisations, is that we’re focused on systems integration. How do we take specific applications and make them work in a real-life context, test for strengths and weaknesses, and make widespread implementation a reality? Accessing the benefits of a future of digital aviation will take international collaboration, shared systems and platforms, and DARTeC provides the breadth of facilities and expertise to bring together the technical, operations and business components.
The Centre is working with partners to deliver an early return on investment – within the first five years. Some are collaborative projects, and some are confidential. The aim is to set up a pipeline of innovative technology and business solutions to provide a sustainable flow of business value into the future.
A question of trust
IoB: One of the areas of research is around virtual air traffic control systems. Do you think people will trust these? Don’t people want other people in this role rather than computers?
AT: Errors in Air Traffic Control (ATC) are rare – but when they happen, more than 90 percent are the result of human error, mistakes in terms of attention, judgment, and communications. In this context, an automated system is going to be far safer than relying on human operators.
As with most autonomous systems – like the piloting of flights themselves, where around 80 percent of journeys are already computer-controlled – ATC will continue to be a blend of IT managed and monitored by expert humans. The remote/virtual control towers will also allow ATC services to be provided for remote and smaller airports, but to achieve that, both digitisation and automation needs to further advance, and this is the kind of work taking place at DARTeC.
Countries like Norway and Sweden already have hundreds of low-use airfields where they’re introducing more virtual ATC operations, and this is the future more widely for the UK and others to efficiently manage localised areas of air traffic outside the scope of the airports. Job roles in ATC will change from being focused around flight despatch to directing the overall processes, managing large networks, involving new management and technology knowledge and skills.
The role of IoT
IoB: How can IoT, big data and so on increase the reliability and availability of aircraft? What can new technologies deliver that current systems can’t?
AT: Maintenance operations in general tend to be based on a reactive or preventative approach. For example, many of the engine components are part of a line replaceable unit (LRU) and if a failure occurs, the whole LRU is replaced and the unit is sent to the hub to be inspected, repaired and installed in another aircraft. The current situation only adds more pressure to the European airline business and aircraft maintenance service providers with higher labour costs compared with those in Asia and the Middle East.
We’ve been part of a three-year research project, RepAIR, developed alongside European partners and Boeing. It is based on a full process of health condition monitoring. The system identifies what’s degraded, what needs repairing when, and delivers on-site repairs via additive manufacturing (AM). This process involves 3D printing of components.
A failure can be detected by the Integrated Vehicle Health Management (IVHM) system of the aircraft, triggering an AM repair or traditional repair decision. In this way, the process to repair the faulty component by AM can start before the aircraft is even on the ground. An additional feature of the management system is that if AM capability is limited to certain locations, the IVHM will plan the maintenance action for where the aircraft is in a hub where AM technology is available.
More specifically, the health monitoring system proposed in RepAIR is capable of detecting a failure in the planetary transmission that connects turbine and generator by using a complex physics-based model for which no additional sensors are needed. The advantage of this system is that certification is simplified because no additional hardware is required.
The system accesses data already available in the aircraft (speed, load, temperature) and calculates the friction. A failure alarm is triggered by a friction threshold, and a critical failure alarm is triggered if a higher threshold is reached. It then communicates the failure status (healthy, alarm, critical) along with the friction estimation and an identifier of the faulty component (flight, plane, component tag).
The information is sent to the CAMO (Continuous Airworthiness Management Organization) and the pilot. The CAMO may decide to trigger a repair work order using AM or any other repair procedure. The pilot can act to minimize the damage by modifying the operational conditions of the transmission or disconnecting it if a critical alarm is triggered.
The capability to repair a component using AM is the basis of a completely different scenario for maintenance. Instead of a dependency on stocks of parts or rapid availability from suppliers, parts are repaired or manufactured while the aircraft is on the ground. All that’s needed is a certified metal 3D printer. It’s possible for the full range of small parts to be manufactured as needed.
For example, RepAIR would address shroud wear, which degrades due to the high temperatures in the turbine. The degraded section can be removed and added again using AM within a short timeframe.
IoB: What is your vision for an improved passenger experience – for example, how will a passenger move through the system differently from how they do now? How will this be made smoother?
AT: Getting large numbers of passengers and their luggage in and out of aircraft in a secure way is what creates the delays, the long waits, the queuing in the system. More use of sensors, autonomous technologies and big data has the potential to remove the tedium and frustration.
So, one model would be for luggage to be collected from a passenger’s home by an autonomous vehicle, scanned and checked en route. So by the time you have been transported to the airport you can walk to the departure lounge. Biometric and document security checks will have been made by the vehicle itself during the journey.
AI and data on all your previous journeys means your options for any food, drink or other likely needs will be waiting for you. Whole journeys can be made seamless – not worrying about how you’re going to get to the hotel or other venue, what happens if the flight is delayed and you’re going to miss a connection. Any ongoing transport links have already arranged based on updated flight times – it’s all being monitored and managed through the data available on your journey. And there are less likely to be delays anyway, given the level of data-driven airspace management and automated aircraft maintenance.
Editor’s note: We will be publishing Part 2 of our interview with Professor Tsourdos next week, in which he discusses the integration of drones into civilian airspace, another key focus for DARTeC.
For more insight into the world of connected aviation and the impact that IoT technologies will have on airlines and airports, readers may be interested in attending our Internet of Aviation event, to be held at London Heathrow on 7 & 8 November.