IoT: A must have for European aircraft manufacturer Airbus
By   |  December 21, 2016

Over 2,000 sensors are installed in each plane produced today by the aircraft manufacturer. These connected objects facilitate maintenance operations.

In order to more efficiently maintain its planes and facilitate the life of the airlines that operate them, Airbus has definitely converted to IoT. According to Nicolas Monturet, the aircraft manufacturer’s digital architect: “More than 2000 elements of an aircraft in operation are now labeled or connected in RFID. During the test phases of our devices it is a lot more. A very large number of elements are connected to evaluate thousands of physical parameters on a device and this figure will grow strongly in the future.”

To bring its aircraft into the IoT era, eight years ago, Airbus set up a dedicated team whose role is to coordinate the projects. This structure called “Value chain visibility”, works with a hundred actors of the IoT sector. “This ecosystem is complex and we work with companies from the telecom, electronics and mechanical industries,” explains Trevor Stone, Head of IoT Development at Airbus, which is in charge of the division. To build its aircrafts, Airbus works with around 100 subcontractors. “Today, 72 of them are posting geolocation tags on the parts they manufacture for us, a figure which is expected to double in 2017. All parts requiring special follow-up, especially for maintenance, will then be marked,” says Mr. Stone. For example, maintenance engineers will know that the aircraft’s landing gear has been used for 800 hours and needs to be revised. Lifejackets for passengers will also be connected. The flight crew, who must check them regularly for safety reasons, will simply go into the cabin with a scanner to check that the account is good. “This operation that was very time-consuming for the crews will take only a few minutes with this system. This is an important gain for the airlines,” said Trevor Stone.

To ensure that the various communicating systems installed by its subcontractors are compatible, Airbus has defined two standards. The first is hardware and allows the aircraft manufacturer to be certain that the installed chips are physically resistant to the extreme conditions of a flight (especially in the cold). The second is a standard that normalizes the data structure. The group can thus easily read the information collected by the various sensors.

Uwinloc, an IoT start-up based in Toulouse is one of the providers of the geolocation tags that works with Airbus. Its chips, which cost between 50 cents and 2 euros per unit, make it possible to locate an object within a 30 meter range. The main quality of these sensors is their autonomy, because they do not use batteries. “With an antenna, they capture the electromagnetic energy they need in their environment to send location data,” said Eric Cariou, CEO of Uwinloc.

Uwinloc tag

Founded in November 2015, the company already has about 40 clients. A dozen of them, such as Airbus, Safran and Air France, are from the small world of aeronautics. Uwinloc has already sold 10 million tags, which will be delivered between 2017 and 2018. “We now have 25 employees and ou ambition is a 25 million euros turnover by 2020, about a quarter of which will be realized In the aviation sector,” says Eric Cariou.

Uwinloc did not sign its contract with Airbus by chance. The start-up is part of BizLab, the incubator created in March 2015 by the aircraft manufacturer in Colomiers, near its Toulouse headquarters. Since the start of the incubator, three start-ups and an IoT intrapreneurship project have been incubated for six months (BizLab also hosts companies from other sectors). In addition to Uwinloc, Airbus spotted Skysense and the internal Aircam project. Both teams are developing drones to facilitate aircraft maintenance. The young company Synergeticon, which created a platform for remote management of industrial sensors, also caught the attention of Airbus .

Airbus is on the lookout for innovation that could make a difference in its market, even if it is still a slow transformation. There are many obstacles to the massive and immediate deployment of IoT in the aeronautics industry. Today, airplanes cannot easily send their data during a flight when they cross several countries. “The regulations on data transfer and the telecoms actors that operate differ from one region to another, and today we are working with several telcos to build a global communication solution, but it takes time”, says Digital architect Nicolas Monturet.

To address this issue, the group is also working with new IoT operators, such as Sigfox, which has deployed its network in 28 countries and plans to cover 60 by 2018. “We have ordered nearly 1,000 Geolocation sensors coupled with the Sigfox network in 2016 and plan to acquire an additional 14,000 in 2017 to locate our logistical means (parts containers) over long distances. ROI should be very fast and comprised between 9 months to one year at most,” says Trevor Stone.

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