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Trouble-shooting in virtual aircraft
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Trouble-shooting in virtual aircraft
Virtual reality tools now equip aircraft maintenance engineers with advanced training tools and methodologies,
Monday, May 15, 2006 at 0037 hours IST
 Modern technology is now enabling a revolution in aircraft maintenance. Imagine a PC application based on virtual reality that simulates the whole aircraft and enables maintenance engineers in a three-dimensional on-screen environment, to walk around the aircraft, visit aircraft areas and locate or act on aircraft components. Mechanics can perform maintenance tasks throughout all their steps, from cockpit to aircraft component, like removal and installation of a failed unit.
The above description is not a scene from a sci-fi film but that of a typical classroom of aircraft manufacturers and carriers for their maintenance engineers. Be it Airbus or Boeing, or the leading airlines around the world, new generation tools allow maintenance engineers to train virtually using aircraft simulation type software.

People learn better when they are active participants in the learning process, says Ashwani Acharya, technical services manager at low-cost carrier IngiGo. “Virtual reality tools now allow engineers to move past traditional textbook training into a hands-on environment that gives real, practical experience in classroom,” he adds. Airbus recently partnered with IndiGo to set up an advanced training centre in New Delhi - the first of its kind outside Europe - for maintenance engineers. The programme combines traditional classroom setting with computers, allowing maintenance engineers to train virtually using aircraft simulation type software. It simulates an entire aircraft, including cockpit in two or three-dimensional versions, and conforms with up-to-date aircraft maintenance practices. In short, it equips them with the latest training tools and methodologies, and allows them to adapt training to new aircraft technologies and maintenance practices.

((Why was Indian left out? Was it Indigo's 100 aircraft order that did the trick?)

Needless to say, given the frantic pace with which the country's aviation sector is expanding, technology is poised to play a significant role in the aviation sector too, especially the $800-million MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul) segment. Normally, about 20-30% of the cost of operating an aircraft is spent on MRO services. After Boeing unveiled plans to set up an MRO facility in India, other companies such as Singapore Airlines, ST Aerospace, Lufthansa Technik of Germany and El Al Israel Airlines, are also looking seriously at the growing MRO market in the country. Even engine manufacturers, such as GE, Rolls Royce, Snecma and Pratt & Whitney, are considering setting up MRO facilities in India.

In India too, says Garvan Moore of Airbus Hamburg training centre, it's the increasing role of maintenance engineers that is center-stage now. Aircraft maintenance engineers are responsible for repairing, replacing, assembling and installing aircraft parts. They also troubleshoot by testing aircraft systems to identify the source or cause of malfunctions. They inspect parts for damage or general wear, perform routine maintenance tasks, and make entries in technical records.

The work often requires shift working, overtime and being on call. The work can be very physically demanding. Engineers and technicians may work in noisy environments, in uncomfortable positions or on scaffolds. Having to work quickly while still observing safety standards can be stressful. In short, they need to combine mechanical aptitude with imaginative, inquisitive and logical minds.

Now imagine the new approach, backed by modern technology, for aircraft maintenance training. Take for instance, the use of two new simulation tools in the courses delivered by the Airbus to train aircraft maintenance technicians.

The new training tools, namely the maintenance /flight training device (M/FTD) and the Virtual Aircraft (VA), are key elements in the new Airbus approach for maintenance training, called AACT (Airbus Active learning and Competence focussed Training). The M/FTD is a training tool that replicates the real aircraft cockpit with PC screens and simulates the aircraft systems and maintenance functions.

On the other hand, in VA, the link between both tools allows simulation of the whole aircraft (inside and outside). The virtual cockpit and the VA are installed in the Airbus classroom, directly on the trainee's desk. This easy and frequent access of simulation tools during the course, allows the trainees to participate more actively in the course, and to gain practical skills before practice on actual aircraft.

Together, the two simulation-based tools cover an entire aircraft, both interior and exterior, allowing trainees to consolidate their theoretical knowledge and gain practical skills before working on the actual aircraft. The programs do not negate the need for hands-on training but enhance the whole maintenance training programme.

The first Airbus maintenance course to benefit from these new tools is the A320 family course. The same approach will be applied in 2006 for the A330 and A340 family, and then for the A380.

Mr Moore explains that the introduction of virtual reality was a feature of the new concept called AACT that gave enhanced training but also provided trouble-shooting insights. Up to 12 people can be trained at a time in a classroom, using two screens, with the flight deck screen providing a 3D environment with a touch-screen facility.

On the simulated flight deck, the centralised fault display system can be accessed in order for the trainees to understand the procedures for picking up maintenance problems as reported.

Some 50% less time has to be spent on the actual aircraft as a result of the virtual reality system, he says, and feedback has revealed that trainees are happier with the clearer understanding they have from the new programme. “We already have a good feedback from trainees that they are well prepared, for afterwards they realise they are exercising trouble-shooting practices as in a real environment,” Mr Moore says.

Aviation analysts contend that flight simulators are extensively used in the industry for pilot training, disaster simulation and aircraft maintenance and development. Pilots and maintenance engineers can explore an airplane’s systems on their computers with interactive photo-realistic panel displays and schematics.

Click on a switch or turn a valve, and the cockpit alert activates and the schematic changes to show the effect of the action. In addition to the cockpit presentation, the program allows an exterior “walk-around” of the airplane, and engineers can “navigate” into bays and compartments to practice maintenance procedures.

Literally, pilots and maintenance technicians can train in the classroom on a virtual cockpit at all stages of the learning process: from desktop trainers to flight training devices, all the way up to the full fight simulator.

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