The impact – and importance – of virtual and augmented reality in aviation
With MRO activities increasingly influenced by new technologies and innovations, there is excitement over the impact of the virtual reality age. Vincent Higgins, CEO and founder of Houston-based Optech4D, a provider of visualisation simulator and location-based technologies, looks at the potential for future adoption in aviation maintenance.
Virtual and Augmented reality technologies have long been exciting and interesting, but their practical application – specifically in the traditional business setting – has been limited at best. However, the technologies and their adoption have come a long way in recent years, especially as the global economy has struggled and the scrutiny on operational efficiency, safety and training have increased dramatically.
While the first use of AR and VR technologies was seen in Silicon Valley and the consumer tech industry, we’re now seeing a shift toward adoption by more traditional B2B industries, such as oil & gas and aviation. This is spurred by AR and VR companies’ employment of industry experts – such as engineers and military personnel – who can develop software programmes that speak specifically to the unique challenges faced in the field every day.
That’s exactly the approach that Optech4D has taken, and its suite of hardware and software solutions empower field technicians to “visualize what matters,” resulting in greater learning retention and operational efficiency. After all, a turbine is a turbine – and the skills used to maintain, repair and operate one are transferrable across many industries. While initial adoption of its AR and VR technologies were in oil and gas, Optech4D has seen incredible interest from leaders across the aviation and aerospace industries, especially from those looking to reduce margin of error, save time and lower costs associated with MRO.
The “human element” of any job – but especially highly technical roles – results in a lot of uncertainty and concern. MRO activities are the cornerstone of safe operations, and in order to keep planes, helicopters and their parts fully operational and well maintained/repaired, it’s critical that mechanics have access to the latest inspection details, manuals and knowledge base. Given that workers are constantly in a high-stress environment, making information access and successful job completion as simple as possible is a huge need. When provided access to AR and VR solutions, workers show a demonstrable improvement in performance and safety – but don’t just take our word for it.
Paul Davies, an electrical engineer at Boeing Research and Technology, conducted a study that revealed how trainees performed with and without the help of AR technology when asked to assemble a mock wing for an aircraft manufacturer. One group of trainees was allowed to have a PDF on a computer to aid them in the assembly and another was given a tablet with the AR technology application. The study concluded that the group with the tablet performed 30 percent faster and was 90 percent more accurate than the group with only the PDF instructions.
No longer science fiction
What once was seen as “something of the future” is now here to stay. AR and VR technology adoption has increased significantly over the past five years, and exponentially so following the advent of Google Glass and virtual reality gaming technologies.
Attendees at the MRO Americas show in Dallas got to experience Optech4D’s AR and VR solutions firsthand for the very first time just a few months ago. Leaders from the United States Air Force, Boeing, United Airlines and more were keenly interested in the technologies and how they could impact their day-to-day business – in fact, some have already begun preliminary tests of the technology application with their staffs.
Why are companies in aviation so quick to accept AR and VR technologies and solutions? Simply put, the new wave of professionals demands it. Just as with the oil and gas industry, workers with decades of experience (Baby Boomers) are retiring en masse, and the industry cannot afford to lose their legacy knowledge and experience. Having grown up digitally savvy and always connected, the Millennial workforce is extremely comfortable with AR and VR solutions, so companies must act now in order to facilitate knowledge sharing before it’s too late.
Instead of carrying around an inches-thick manual with instructions and diagrams, today’s technicians can access the same information, complete with 3D models and simulations, from the convenience of their iPad or smartphone. They can also hold conversations with senior colleagues while working remotely, enabling them to ask questions, seek confirmation and get a second opinion in minutes, rather than hours or days.
Here to stay
The use of VR and AR technologies across traditional industries like aviation, aerospace, oil and gas, construction and others, is here to stay. Thankfully, companies like Optech4D are leading the charge in technology innovation and development in ways that matter most to industry personnel. By providing solutions with demonstrable, tangible and ROI-linked benefits, VR and AR can help companies visualise what matters – an increase in MRO activities, cost savings, safety and success.