Look – no hands! How voice control is launching the next stage of handsfree MRO in A&D

Supplier: 
IFS

Civil aviation and defence maintenance engineers need two hands to work and two fingers to use a mobile device. Voice recognition technology is becoming the next stage in mobile app enhancement - leaving the engineer's hands free for maintenance duties and promising to bring huge changes to A&D maintenance and the supply chain. Jeff Pike, head of strategy and marketing for the IFS Aerospace and Defence Centre of Excellence, looks at how voice control technology is set to disrupt the MRO workplace.

Working in restricted spaces is a common feature in a typical civil aviation or defence engineer's daily routine. Most maintenance engineers have problems associated with physical access – having to work in very small spaces, cramped conditions and in uncomfortable climates or environmental conditions, aggravated by aspects such as poor lighting or having to wear protective apparatus. Overloading the maintenance engineer - wearing safety kit and in a dark submarine bilge or the underbelly of an aircraft - with full information system (IS) functionality while working with limited room for manoeuvre, simply doesn't make sense. Enter the development of next generation, apps-based ERP systems.

The consumerisation of IT for the A&D industry continues apace, first with the arrival of mobile devices. Mobile devices offer one solution and are now commonplace in maintenance hangars - wearable technology has recently been trialled by both EasyJet and Japan Airlines to inspect aircraft on the ground. But just because you can use mobile devices, doesn't always mean you should. Mobile applications offer a better platform than simply full ERP functionality on a mobile device for recording and viewing information which is quickly and easily accessible. Things such as asset history, a record of parts used or parts needed for repair and any notes of repairs performed, are displayed on an easy-to-understand interface - allowing engineers to be as efficient and effective as possible without the need to 'down tools' and report information back at base.

Mobile devices have significantly improved agility by placing role-specific applications, processes and information directly into the palm of your hand - the DoD released its Mobile Defence Strategy in 2013 with the objective of creating a highly mobile workforce for greater mission effectiveness. While offering a solution to the problem of gaining essential feedback of specific operational information, mobile devices need fingers to do the talking - fingers that are also needed to carry out essential maintenance.

Enter voice control technology. This consumer technology enables us to send a text, change the TV channel or alter the thermostat by talking to a smart device. So will voice technology usher in new ways of interacting with the ERP system in A&D? I think so.

Management and maintenance on command
The list of potential benefits for using a voice system with mobile apps is impressive. Productivity, parts order accuracy and efficiency would all rise as a result of engineers no longer needing to down tools and take trips to report data back to base, or input data manually. More importantly, voice apps would be able to support airworthiness by making sure the right part is secured at the right time, streamlining the repair process and putting aircraft back in the air as soon as possible. Minimising aircraft downtime in A&D maintenance is essential – airline operators lose hundreds of pounds every second an aircraft is on the ground. This handsfree, heads down, approach allows engineers to focus on the task ahead, contributing to the quick sign-off for an aircraft while keeping to strict A&D safety regulations. Here’s some typical scenarios in both civil aviation and defence.

The signing off of aircraft has long been a problem in A&D maintenance – the aircraft can't take off unless approved by a maintenance engineer, which takes time. The process of having to remove safety kit and return back to a quieter environment in order to log vital information is time aircraft could be in the air making money or supporting troops. The time spent could be costly, so it's important for engineers to have access to a device capable of logging information immediately as soon as they see a fault on a plane or vehicle. It's easier when the tools help to exercise more control over the work environment, and process-driven actions in the hangar or in-theatre do not have to be complex.

Voice recognition technology and mobile apps could transform the way engineers work. Engineers carrying out flight-line maintenance could ask their mobile device to report the tyre pressure of an aircraft on the tarmac in front of them. This information could be fed back from the device – and compared with the actual tyre pressure required for the specific aircraft. If the actual pressure was incorrect, the engineer could then verbally instruct the system to assign a maintenance task to the wheel in question.

In the defence environment, voice control offers an opportunity in reliability and maintenance. Assets with a logged, but not operationally critical, structural fault require regular eyeball checking. For example when an infantry fighting vehicle returns from operations, health usage monitoring systems (HUMS) may identify a particular part that requires regular attention. On inspection the engineer could report the latest status of the part with a simple voice command - be it on land, sea or in the air.

In-hangar or at-base maintenance could be revolutionised too, with engineers working on aircraft or equipment able to quickly query the quality, status and lifespan of any part verbally - then check the availability of spares completely handsfree.

Talk to your ERP
IFS Labs, part of IFS Research and Development tasked with finding new ways to push the boundaries ERP system capability, often looks to the world of consumer technology for inspiration. The Labs has designed a mobile app called IFS Intelligent Personal Assistant (IPA), that lets the user control IFS Applications by their voice, via a smartphone or tablet.

“Taking inspiration from intuitive web and social media applications and incorporating them into IFS Applications, IFS Labs helps pioneer the company’s continual focus on improving enterprise application usability – setting new standards in enterprise software design for its customers,” says Martin Gunnarsson product director, IFS research & development.

Having looked closely at Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana - the apps A&D personnel are already using in everyday life - IFS Labs has now designed the IPA for people who want to search for data and update data in IFS Applications using voice commands with mobile apps. The IPA uses a standard software development kit for speech to text and text to speech, with the infrastructure for fetching data from IFS Applications built on current IFS cloud structure.

It’s all about use – so there is still work to do
A&D is not immune from the ripple effect of consumer trends as support solutions become less about Information System (IS) infrastructure and more about open access and ease of use. Current technology such as noise cancellation headphones and throat microphones allow voice recognition technology to work functionally in most environments, for example dealing with background noise on the airport tarmac or during frontline military operations. With voice apps, aircraft no longer have to wait long to be signed-off - engineers can report what they see there and then - rather than having to wait to get back to base to detail information - and get the plane back in the air as soon as possible.

Right functionality, right time
Voice technology in A&D will result in more efficient maintenance, without investment in complex IT training - speeding up the maintenance process and ensuring aircraft spend more time transporting paying customers and equipment is ready to support mission-critical military operations - not sitting idle waiting for an engineer’s attention.

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