The digital revolution first put maintenance data online, saving paper and major hassles. Then laptops brought data to techs, saving walking time to desktops and kiosks. Smartphones, handhelds and tablets are starting to cut weight from techs' bags and shoulders. What's next?
Wearable computing promises many of the same benefits as the latest tablets, but with hands-free operation. And who needs to have their hands free more than aviation maintenance technicians and engineers? Innovation in wearable devices is evolving so fast that maintenance shops and departments soon will have many choices. Smart watches, smart glasses, smart rings and other devices will be extensively used in airlines and airports. Bringing them onto the tarmac or into hangars is tougher, but the potential benefits are real.
Choosing a device requires looking at a number of factors. Capabilities, cost, ease of use and durability are the most prominent considerations. The SITA Lab recently conducted trials of several wearable devices. Innovation Manager Stephane Cheikh says SITA worked chiefly with Google Glass and Vuzix M100 headsets, but also looked at some smart watches.
“The M100 has better camera focus, but Google Glass has a touchpad on the side, so it is easier to maneuver,” Cheikh summarizes. But practicality for aviation use depends on how a wearable device is used. Cheikh sees the M100 as better-suited to maintenance tasks under wings and outside because it is more robust that Glass. Furthermore, “one limitation of Google is that lots of features are voice-activated. Maintenance on the tarmac endures lots of noise, so you might need to use your hands. Glass would be hard to use on the tarmac, but it is still a very good wearable device.”
SITA field-tested smart watches for maintenance with airlines late in 2013. These watches are connected to other devices—for example smartphones—so users can just tap their wrists, rather than removing a phone from a pocket. “You touch the watch screen and get access to the information,” Cheikh notes.
One good use for wearable devices might be by the ramp agents who guide aircraft to gates with batons, and plug in electricity and other services. “They need their hands,” Cheikh notes. “They now use phones and rugged devices. They could use smart watches or glasses, take a picture of the tail number and send it to the airport management system,” which then could come back with information to help the agent to do his or her job, he notes.
One challenge is connecting wearable devices to wireless networks, which Cheikh says is easier inside the airport than outside. Worker acceptance also may be a hurdle, depending on the device. Battery life is another consideration. SITA used early prototypes of Glass and M100 that lasted for only a couple of hours of constant use. “They will improve,” Cheikh predicts. “All the OEMs will come up with improved devices in the next 18 to 24 months.”