Inspecting Aircraft

A lot of work

Over 5000 repair stations nationwide employ 36000 experienced aviation repairmen to manufacture, modify and maintain high quality General Aviation aircraft parts. Over 340000 (yes, a third of a million) mechanics (or "Aviation Maintenance Technicians" AMTs), located at airports nationwide, install, replace and inspect those parts on the 163000 registered small aircraft. There are more mechanics than aircraft because many of them work part-time, or seasonally, or only maintain specific models. These numbers do not include airlines and charter operations, since this project is addressing General Aviation.

The FAA has identified a safety need for an extremely low cost and multi-purpose system and is searching for projects to provide it. A key concern is that the analysis algorithms must be easy to update when new ideas and techniques are developed. It is also desired that the same hardware be able to make measurements based on proprietary algorithms that would be developed by competing companies, in order to avoid the need for the end-user to purchase multiple systems.

In the absence of such a system, inspection for cracking and corrosion is performed visually. The skill and expertise of the technician is applied to ensuring that the minimum disassembly of the aircraft is done while achieving the best possible result. This is error-prone because of the difficulty of teaching those skills to new people and also because there continue to be many areas that are not visible.

Poor infrastructure

No new airports are being built, so all airports are old airports. The industrial areas nearby, and on the airport ramps, were established decades ago. Back then, there was no internet, few uses for a computer in a small company and most people visited their suppliers instead of calling around on the phone. The maintenance facilities at most airports therefore only have one power feed and one telephone line available. The power would be unreliable and may need conditioning before plugging in expensive electronics, and the phone line is old copper and usually unable to deliver DSL or ISDN services.

This has a dramatic impact on the technology that can reasonably be used by these talented people. It needs to run on batteries, even if these are charged from the wall jack, and it must never need to communicate with the internet when being used. All the documentation has to be locally available, because the user can only read the website when at home in the evenings (using modern infrastructure).

There are more subtle effects too, because there is little space for a lot more manuals on the bookshelves. The manuals need to be electronic and should be readily available on CDROM because downloading new versions from the internet is not feasible. If the user has to have a CD anyway, the software could run directly from there and save all that hassle of installing and upgrading that is normally encountered.

Sharing Experience

Although aircraft maintenance facilities are competitive for work and package their services to meet customer needs at a fair price, they routinely discuss problems, share experiences and build a community to offer a high quality of work. If the software does not permit its users to compare results without using the internet, it will not be popular in the field.

Although a group of adjacent (yet independent) maintenance facilities have trouble getting a data connection to the internet, they have no difficulty running some wire to form a network between them. In this unusual setting, a local network may easily exist even through there is no intention of providing a link to the internet.