For the aviation industry, the advances in robotics and automation promise to maximize efficiency, reduce errors and dramatically improve asset and service reliability. However, with the convergence of information technology (IT) and operation technology (OT), the opportunity for malicious elements to sabotage and disrupt operations is also on the rise.
With increased risk, cybersecurity is moving to the top of the aviation industry’s agenda. With pressure on improving safety, reducing spends on maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) and bettering customer experience, coming years will see the industry quickly bring robotics, automation and cybersecurity center stage to deliver major benefits.
Robotics: Improving Employee Efficiency, Cost Savings and Speed
The 2018 Air Transport IT Insights survey found that nearly half of the world's airlines and 32% of its airports are "seeking a partner to further investigate robotics and automated vehicles in the next three years." Robots are poised to become a major trend in the industry. They are already popping up at airports, freeing humans from everyday mundane activities, leaving humans to deal with more complex customer service-oriented tasks and emergencies.
The early experiments with Leo, the robot at Geneva airport developed by SITA and robotics company BlueBotics, which helped passengers with check-ins, boarding passes and baggage drops is maturing.i Tokyo’s Haneda airport recently put seven sophisticated robots on show. These are a precursor to the Olympics that Tokyo will host in 2020 when an army of robots will assist passengers carry luggage, interpret in multiple languages and identify potential security risks. For Japan, the robots will, additionally, help battle the labor shortage against a backdrop of an ageing population.ii
SITA’s robotic check-in kiosks also demonstrate the levels of innovation being deployed in the industry on the back of technology. The kiosks evaluate flight schedules and passenger flows to automatically move to congested areas in the airport to bust queues.iii
Wearable robots are making headlines too. They are being pressed into service to reduce occupational hazards and enhance employee capabilities. Leading by example is Delta Airlines that recently joined the Exoskeleton Technical Advisory Group (X-TAG) to explore the potential of using industrial exoskeleton systems by their workforce.iv The exoskeletons will allow employees to combine the precision of machines with the ability to perform physical activities beyond normal human capabilities.
The most interesting robot related news is emerging on the MRO front. Most MRO tasks are manual, repetitive, time consuming and expensive. Advances in drone technology are attempting to change this. Drones, equipped with cameras, are now able to do visual inspections (for damage, paint quality, etc.). Inspections for damage from lightning strike (routinely done twice a year) can be reduced from 6 hours to 2 hours using drones.v Operators can key in the registration details of an aircraft into the drone’s management system and the software identifies the type of aircraft, loads the routines and completes the inspection autonomously. The drones use 3D imaging software to automatically and accurately identify damage, reducing errors in detection and improving safety.
Automation: Improving Aircraft Health and Boosting Crew Performance
A major challenge before airlines is ensuring aircraft health to minimize the mounting costs from delayed and cancelled flights. Almost 30% of delay time is a result of unplanned maintenancevi.
This is about to change. The newest generation of aircraft is generating around five to eight terabytes of data per flight using a large number of sensors and IOT devices installed in them. Some estimates suggest that the annual data generation by 2026 will be in the region of 98 billion gigabytes. Within the data are the insights and triggers that will help airlines make smart decision about their operations and maintenance.
This is a compelling reason for airlines to deploy predictive maintenance solutions. These solutions apply automation to acquire data from IoT-enabled aircraft health monitoring sensors, information analysis, and to decision-making processes. A 2017 study has shown that over 10% airlines use Excel, Access, etc., to manage aircraft maintenance while 33.9% airlines have been using their current MRO software for more than ten years.vii Clearly, it is time for an upgrade. Automation can add substantial value to MRO, saving millions of dollars. We predict it will be a major area of investment in the coming years.
Automation has a role to play in the air as well. A modern cockpit is a busy place and automation has been helping pilots reduce the fatigue from long flights and changing time zones by reducing their workload and enhancing their decision-making capabilities. However, this is rudimentary automation when compared to what is possible. Currently, researchers are developing machine learning-based autopilot systems that can adapt to changing conditions such as bad weather. In addition, the need is to ensure that humans and AI can work better together. A 2013 report by the US Federal Aviation Administration found that more than 60% of accidents, over a decade, involved pilots making errors after automated systems abruptly shut down or behaved erratically. One recent and tragic example that has made the headlines is the Boeing 737 Max belonging to Lion Air that plunged into the sea, taking 198 people on board with itviii. This means automated systems have to be made more resilient and reliable (similar to developments being pursued in the autonomous vehicle space).
There are disproportionately large rewards to advanced automation. For example, automation processes currently being developed could allow the copilot to stay on the ground (and remain more alert) to take over controls remotely when necessary. In fact, a single copilot on the ground could be used to manage multiple planes. This means a reduction in costs and, with copilots not subject to the punishing fatigue of flying, an improvement in safety.
An operational area in which automation can create highly effective outcomes is around crew rostering. Each day, a complex set of considerations determine how crew assignments happen. These considerations include crew licensing and qualifications, availability, aircraft type, training requirements, work regulations, labor laws, etc. In addition, crew fatigue from previous flights needs to be factored in to the decision-making mix. This is not easy and errors can result in poor passenger experience as well as become the cause of aberrations in safety.
The aviation industry has systematically committed large investments towards safety. But the industry is large and dependent on multiple interconnected partners. Therefore, the most daunting challenge before it is to identify areas of vulnerability within the rich value chain. And a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The legacy technology being used in the aviation space, in many instances is over 40 years old, and is increasingly showing its vulnerability to cyberattacks. We have recent examples where operators such as Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines were affected by hackers. One study has shown that attacks against airlines increased by 15,000% (yes, 15,000%!) between 2017 and 2018ix. In 2018 incidents of Cathay Pacific and British Airways suffering data breaches with millions of customer records and payment card data compromised is just the latest instance of what the aviation industry can expect.x In a politically unstable world, it is a soft target for hackers where the payoffs are significant.
Even more worrying is the proliferation of in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) systems, involving varied vendors. Onboard WiFi is in demand and swiftly becoming a reality, with passengers connecting all kinds of devices to it for accessing mail, video, text and to browsing. The in-flight connectivity is increasing the available surface to launch malicious attacks. Ruben Santamarta, a researcher at cybersecurity company IOActive, has hacked onboard systems, snooped on the onboard Wi-Fi and carried out surveillance on all connected passenger devices in a demonstration of how simple such attacks can be. xi
Not surprisingly, the latest research from SITA shows 89% airline CIOs are planning major programs around cybersecurity in the next three years.xi The same study shows that airlines would have spent an estimated average of 9% of their overall IT budget on cybersecurity in 2018, up from 7% last year while airports would have invested about 12% of their budget in cybersecurity, up from 10% in 2017. According to one forecast, the aviation cybersecurity market will be worth $61.85 billion by 2020.xii
Advanced technology is a double-edged sword, regardless of which industry embraces it. For the aviation industry, the payoffs are larger with an opportunity to improve safety, deliver exceptional customer experience, and reduce costs. The pros and cons must be carefully evaluated and astutely balanced before investments are made. Without doubt, the future is going to be “intelligent”, built around robotics, automation and balanced by improved cybersecurity. That future is now.