The demand for aircraft engineers and mechanics continues to increase rapidly, especially in parts of the world with the least training infrastructure. Kevin Deal, vice president of Aerospace & Defense at IFS, thinks virtual reality and augmented reality tools could help meet the demand.
“Japan Airlines recently deployed a virtual reality headset for engine mechanics and flight-crew trainees,” Deal notes. And the overall market for virtual and augmented reality is expected to reach $120 billion by 2020.
These technologies have been used in commercial and military aviation for simulated training for several years. Now Deal sees them being used to address the skill gaps in aviation maintenance.
Part of the challenge in filling gaps is the long delays that regulation imposes on qualification of aircraft maintenance workers, up to five years for a B1 or B2 European Aviation Safety Agency license and up to eight years in the U.S. to become fully licensed.
Yet aircraft in the Middle East will soon require 11 million man-hours a year of maintenance. And so far only 342 United Arab Emirates nationals have been licensed as aircraft mechanics.
Deal says airlines face three options. First, they can strategically place more qualified mechanics on the ground across their global flight paths. “That is unrealistic in most cases,” he says. Mechanics earn an average of $50,000 per year; both senior and junior mechanics are needed and must work in shifts. And travel, accommodation, expenses and facilities must be paid for.
Second, airlines can fly a qualified mechanic out only when needed to fix an aircraft. But this could take days, and aircraft sitting on the ground may cost $10,000-150,000 for a couple of hours.
The third choice is using a wearable or mobile device to augment local engineering skills with the expertise of more qualified technicians from any location at any time.
Virtual reality simulation can also speed up maintenance training. ICF Vice President Jonathan Berger estimates virtual reality could shave one or two years off training programs. Deal says augmented and virtual reality could reduce training times, improve efficiency and bring huge cost savings.