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ANALYSIS: Predictive MRO raises legal and privacy questions

Technicians are speeding up MRO processes for airlines by analysing increasing amounts of data drawn from repair facilities and numerous aircraft components. This trend also raises questions about what laws and best practices will emerge to normalise the use and sharing of aircraft-related data.

More efficiently monitoring the health of aircraft can pay off by reducing unscheduled maintenance and keeping aircraft in service as often as possible. The efficiency benefits for MRO technicians are very attractive if, for instance, a task that "used to take 40 hours now takes only one hour", says Dawen Nozdryn‑Plotnicki, director of analytics solutions at Boeing Global Services.

"Think of what else you can do with that time," she said during a panel discussion about big data on 9 April, at the MRO Americas summit in Atlanta. This technology trend known as predictive maintenance is just beginning to impact how aerospace companies are run.

"Evidence-based decision-making is a culture and that has to be top down – it has to be met by enthusiasm by the bottom up, one layer at a time," she says. "That kind of culture change is not easy in any industry."

Companies are designing predictive maintenance platforms to make their MRO as efficient as possible. Offerings include Skywise Health Monitoring by Airbus and Prognos by Air France Industries KLM Engineering & Maintenance, along with FlightSense and Ascentia by Collins Aerospace.

Global spending on MRO for the commercial air transport market will increase from $82 billion in 2019 to $116 billion in 2029 to match the expansion of aircraft fleets, forecasts New York-based market-analysis firm Oliver Wyman. Engine MRO services could represent the largest segment of that spending, increasing from the current $33.4 billion to $50 billion by 2029. Engines are among the aircraft components being designed to collect more data that technicians can later access to track their performance, travel schedules and repair history.

DATA QUALITY MANAGEMENT

The quality of data collected matters when technicians seek assistance from software algorithms that can help them make decisions about safety and when to pull a component from service. Engine removal and maintenance is an example of a situation where it can be difficult to ensure data accuracy because the process can occasionally lead to false positives, warns Eva Azoulay, vice-president of engine services for Pratt & Whitney.

"If you're having a lot of false positives, you're having the wrong impact on the organisation," Azoulay said during the discussion in Atlanta. "I don't have five years to test out the algorithm. We have to think how do we validate the capabilities quickly."

The importance of having accurate data and software that helps rather than complicates MRO raises questions about responsibility for companies, along with how they should share data they own with other aviation companies and regulators while still following customer privacy rules.

"There are a lot of legal implications," Anne Brachet, executive vice-president of AFI KLM E&M, said during the panel discussion in Atlanta, adding that the industry was still having conversations that would shape best practices.

EVOLVING DATA-SHARING REQUIREMENTS

Lawmakers are increasingly taking notice of data collection in other sectors such as medicine and social media, so the legal community is starting to consider how regulators may one day hold companies accountable for aviation safety data.

Poor response to predictive maintenance data could one day be treated similarly to malpractice when a doctor mismanages health data, says Sarah McLeod, executive director of the Aeronautical Repair Station Association.

"Part of the legal questions are: 'How can this be used against me?' but I'm not sure we're there yet," says McLeod, also a managing member at the law firm of Obadal, Filler, MacLeod & Klein. "Some of this could come out in court cases."

The grounding of Boeing 737 Max aircraft for safety reasons is raising public scrutiny about ensuring regulators are kept aware of information that could minimise accidents, McLeod says. Legal liabilities that could accompany the growth of predictive maintenance may lead to new requirements for what data must be shared with regulators.

Aviation regulators may also have to decide what minimum MRO data technology will be required for certain licences, she says, as regulations in the automotive industry can mandate a company to include the "best available technology". She says this raises questions, including: "If I apply for a type certificate 10 years from now, am I going to be required to have the best available predictive maintenance technology?"

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