While there is active collaboration between industry suppliers and maintenance schoolhouses to expand A/M/V/XR’s reach into curricula, Group Editor Marty Kauchak reports there are perceived technology gaps and other challenges.
There is a brisk pace of research and development, and related early lifecycle activities in this learning technology sector. Given the current, but evolving, maturity levels of the A/M/V/XR technology bases, end users and their suppliers are tending toward VR solutions for aspiring and current maintainers.
Shantanu Gupta, founder and managing director, Tecknotrove Systems (Mumbai, India), explained VR presents a highly immersive form of training which is cost effective and impactful at the same time. The executive noted during the Covid-19 pandemic, teams have been away from their work environments, often for a long period of time, and hence are disconnected from regular operations. Refresher training is therefore becoming increasingly important to help the workforce become productive. “VR plays a critical role to achieve these training goals by teleporting the trainee into an environment that’s close to real. Complete immersion in the environment allows the trainee to focus on the task and learn better. The in-built voice instructions intelligently guide the trainee to identify faults and take the correct course of action.”
When compared to AR, VR immerses people into a completely virtual environment – sometimes employing multiple senses (sight, smell, touch, sound). “On the other hand, AR which works on mobiles or tablets could be distracting as it merges with your real environment. Once the trainee puts on the VR headset, we have his or her full attention. In addition, with VR, we are able to design step-by-step training modules that allow our users to safely interact with not only the object but also the surrounding environment,” Gupta explained.
Tecknotrove provides a performance report generated at the end of each module that determines the training effectiveness and training gaps. Gupta said, “It has been studied and observed that people take training more seriously when immersed completely. Hence, we have noticed that virtual reality is preferred over AR by the industries, especially for critical training applications.”
This part of Tecknotrove’s portfolio has included work with airports, airlines, ground handlers and MROs. A partial list of the firm’s expanding customer roster includes SIA Engineering Company, Qatar Airways, Indira Gandhi International Airport, Çelebi and Dubai International Airport. Gupta noted his company’s training solutions have helped its customers to train their staff on critical applications under complete safety. “Leading companies from around the world are using TecknoSIM VR solutions to train their engineers on ramp safety and aircraft inspection – post-arrival and pre-departure. VR training is designed for a complete range of narrow- and widebody commercial aircraft. VR puts the trainee in front of a virtual aircraft and allows them to learn and master their skills in maintenance, repair and overhaul of an aircraft.”
Tecknotrove has set up simulation-based training centers for its aviation customers around the world. “These training centers offer training for multiple functional areas including line maintenance, MRO and ramp operations. Training is further localized by recreating custom airsides, regional languages and by incorporating the operations challenges. TecknoSIM Simulation Training Centres have helped clients move from conventional analog training methodology to a digital experience-based training. This adoption of digital training has helped in reducing total training time substantially and at the same time improve the training effectiveness.”
While Tecknotrove uses VR headsets from HTC and Oculus, Gupta noted, “We are continuously updating our software to ensure their compatibility with the latest VR hardware available for training.”
Tecknotrove's Shantanu Gupta noted with VR-based courses, “employees are trained up to four times faster and more effective than traditional training.” Image credit: Tecknotrove.
Attention-Getters for Instructional Designers
As VR is delivering instances of maintenance training, it’s also critical to manage expectations for the broader community. Several training organizations have invested in these learning capabilities and continue to do so in pilot projects. Yet, other major businesses and training enterprises are waiting for additional returns on investment from A/M/V/XR before using them in their instructional designs. And still other prospective end users have outright decided not to embrace these capabilities at this time. Of added significance, while organizations ponder using A/M/V/XR, they continue to use other enabling learning technologies as bridges to support their next-generation training constructs.
One end-user perspective was provided by Panagiotis Poligenis, head of Business Development, Strategy and Innovation at Lufthansa Technical Training (Frankfurt, Germany), who noted for the time being his organization does not use any A/M/V/XR applications during its training sessions. “Nevertheless,” he added, “we are constantly working on prototypes and are testing various use cases. We have demonstrated our capability to provide customized state-of-the-art training solutions for many use cases and this is part of our ‘DNA.’”
According to the LTT executive, the key principle has always been to develop high-quality training for its clients based on contemporary training methods, efficiency and providing the right level of skills and knowledge for the participants. “Having said this, we have experienced a number of advantages by applying a well-balanced mix of different media during our training sessions and focusing on alternate modes.”
In one instance, LTT deploys, in almost all its type-training sessions, customized and internally developed 360° panoramic viewer tools based on high-resolution photos. Poligenis reported this is not only reducing the time for practical training at the aircraft – by transferring practical tasks into the classroom session – but also is being used by students to familiarize with the entire aircraft outside the training session. “This has proven to be a cost-efficient solution and is providing a more realistic user experience than a digital simulation that would be deployed via VR/MR/AR,” he emphasized.
Poligenis added, “This does not necessarily mean that we are not experimenting and prototyping applications for mixed reality. To the contrary, we believe that VR/MR/AR can be a great method to enhance practical training elements and to improve the entire learning experience. However, it can be only one part of a complete and integrated training concept.”
LTT views these emergent technologies as “excellent” for providing procedural training for certain elements during engine run-up. “It is definitely an ideal solution to allow training participants a familiarization with the environment and specific procedures without necessarily occupying a full-flight simulator that comes at a cost.”
Poligenis’s critique of the current A/M/V/XR technology baseline should provide a vital datum point for S&T industry suppliers and developers, as he observed the use of immersive virtual environments has other limitations: “Especially when it is crucial for a learning objective to have a certain ‘touch and feel’ of components or activating a button in the cockpit, the technology is not there yet. Or in other words, developing virtual training sessions including kinesthetic and/or tactile haptic feedback is quite expensive,” he said. “We trust that the technological progress will support the development of cost-effective and realistic solutions in the near future. We are working constantly on developing the right cost-effective training solutions with a well-balanced mix of methods. We believe in immersive virtual environments as enhancement of hands-on training whenever there is an excellent cost-benefit ratio.”
Another end-user insight on the emerging potential of A/M/V/XR in maintenance training was offered by Zilvinas Lapinskas, CEO at FL Technics (Vilnius, Lithuania), who emphasized the organization believes virtual reality to be a breakthrough technology for MRO companies. “FL Technics has been exploring AR, VR and XR solutions since early 2017 focusing on four key areas of operations – virtual reality training, support of augmented reality, drone inspection and automated NDT [non-destructive testing], and predictive maintenance.”
The company’s digital training solutions, including AR/VR/XR, at this stage are tailored to initial training and induction, since the material and courses for a higher level of education (e.g., engineers, certifying staff) need to be aligned and approved by the regulators (national and global).
Since it involves OEMs, the process is time-consuming and is currently on hold due to the pandemic. Lapinskas continued that modernizing basic training for maintenance mechanics and support staff (e.g., warehouse logisticians and others) is a good starting point, “and FL Technics’ experience with innovative technologies is a great proof of potential in the MRO business, while our pilot projects using AR/VR/XR technologies really appeal to the younger generation of specialists.”
FL Technics provided yet another vital insight for the developers of A/M/V/XR gear, when its CEO pointed out current activities bring up the “key challenge” – a gap of quality/precision, etc., when it comes to applying A/M/V/XR in practice, especially in base maintenance, non-destructive testing, and similar cases, where new technologies still need to be adapted and developed to meet the highest standards of quality.
Lapinskas concluded FL Technics has a sharp vision and strong focus on digitalization, based on its best practices in MRO and LEAN-driven processes. “Thus, we aim to get back on track with the development of these technologies in near future and do hope our input will allow us to certify and approve the AR/VR/XR with relevant regulators and organizations.”
Josh Rawlins, COO and Board member at Epic Flight Academy (Edgewater, Florida), told CAT his organization has always invested in technology for its flight training program with new model glass-cockpit aircraft as well as working with a top simulator manufacturer (Frasca) to custom-build a full-motion training simulator.
“This generation has grown up surrounded by technology, and that is what they respond to. We plan to follow the path with our aircraft mechanic training program. We will be attending the ATEC [Aviation Technician Education Council] conference, and we are excited to see what is out there for this next generation of training. VR, AR and XR are definitely on the table to look into.”
However, airBaltic’s Corporate Communication Unit (Riga, Latvia) told CAT, “airBaltic does not currently use AR/VR/XR technologies for maintenance personnel training. The company has tested some solutions in the past, however has no specific plans of introducing them.”
A Regulator’s Policy Position
From a regulatory perspective, the US lags behind EASA in encouraging and even qualifying A/M/V/XR in aviation training devices, with EASA having qualified its first VR-based flight training device in Spring 2021.
In terms of the FAA and, more specifically, advancing the maintenance training technology baseline, an FAA spokesperson told CAT, “FAA regulations do not address the use of virtual reality, mixed reality or augmented reality in aviation maintenance training. The FAA is not currently proposing a regulation for this technology. A training organization can ask the FAA for authorization to incorporate this technology as part of its training curriculum.”
Other S&T companies, and in particular the suppliers of professional-grade VR-headsets, declined invitations to provide insights. An attention-getting response, provided on background, from one major headset supplier, noted there was a sufficient lack of activity in the maintenance training market that precluded them from providing meaningful contributions.
One of the reported efforts to expand the technology baseline for A/M/V/XR enablers will occur at Tecknotrove. The company will build content for critical training areas for the aviation sector during “the next 12-24 months that will be integrated to our cloud-based training management system to offer ‘asset-lite’ VR solutions for our clients. Thus, making training cost effective and impactful at the same time,” said Gupta. Over the coming months, Tecknotrove will also be expanding its list of modules to cover the full scope of maintenance training.
As the demand for A/M/V/XR increases for pilot training, there are certain to be synergies and other demands creating a pull for these technologies to cross over into the maintenance learning enterprise.