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Aircraft health monitoring systems and potential effects on airspace safety

More than 44,000 aircraft flights are handled by the Federal Aviation Administration each day. Each of these flights involve a monumental amount of technology in order to operate, so it’s vital that each aircraft remains in peak operational status to carry the more than 2.8 million passengers that fly in and out of US airports each day.

According to a recent manuscript from the NASA Ames Research Center, “The presence of faults in an aircraft either due to onboard malfunctions or external entities may not only be affecting the ‘health’ of that particular aircraft, but also, in some situations, may affect the surrounding airspace, to some extent.” 

Dr. Chetan S. Kulkarni, a staff researcher at NASA’s Prognostics Center of Excellence writes, “if an aircraft were to lose communication abilities, then it may have to rely on visual flight rules, and this may pose an increased risk (not only to itself, but also) to the surrounding airspace.”

One of the key ways aircrafts are maintained are through aircraft health monitoring systems (AHMS). These systems use real-time data captured through sensors to improve reliability and safety and to address potential issues as early as possible.

In Aviation Week’s Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) 2019 Engine Yearbook, Alex Derber wrote about the role AHMS play in predictive maintenance of aircraft. He states that while some sort of aircraft health monitoring has always been in existence, “big advances in the gathering and analysis of sensor data have transformed the practice, allowing many more operating parameters to be assessed and giving support teams the ability to check live inflight data.”

Derber says this has led engine manufacturers to create products that can better monitor aircraft health. As one example, Boeing has developed “Airbus’ Airman” to monitor their craft. 

“The core module of ‘Airman-web’ monitors aircraft events, including systems, while an optional module connects to the maintenance information system and allows aircraft data requests,” says Derber. The Airbus system is accessible via the internet, through a cloud-based system, making it easy for the necessary staff to access aircraft data. 

In addition to improving safety through access to immediate data, AHMS can result in cost savings. Not only do AHMS reduce engine maintenance costs, but the faster an aircraft’s issues can be identified and resolved, the faster that aircraft can get up in the air.

As technology advances, AHMS are continually expanding to be able to monitor the small parts of an aircraft in order to replace them before they fail. 

The small differences in varying aircraft fleet can make it difficult for AHMS to work to the best ability on all aircraft at all times, particularly after engines are overhauled. As a result, changes to the systems are constantly being made and there are many opportunities for astronautical and aviation engineers to make improvements and new innovations. 

Derber summarizes, “New software and algorithms will be used in analyzing more data and combining it in different ways to improve forecasting ability.” 

As the number of air traffic controllers, pilot certificates, and passengers has increased over the last year, AHMS will only continue to grow in importance. 

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