Regular readers will be familiar with digital placemaking, where we talk about using technology to connect people with places in ways that enhance their experience of their location. In this article, we are moving our attention to the use of digital technologies to support the management of a place from an operational perspective, e.g. the management of tangible objects, infrastructure and the Internet of Things. This article focuses on digital place management in the context of the aerospace and defence sector, which feels ripe for digital transformation.
Given its size and value, it is perhaps surprising that much of the aerospace and defence sector still relies on manual processes, paper-based systems and fragmented databases. There is huge scope for more digital solutions across the board, with one McKinsey report estimating advancing the digital maturity of the global aerospace and defence industry could unlock $20bn in annual EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortisation).
From locating debris on runways to making sure an aircraft doesn’t fly into a flock of geese, we’re going to explore some practical examples of digital technologies for aerospace management and how they can solve key place management issues in this sector and beyond.
Digital place management in practice
Asset location tracking
Airfields are complex environments where everything needs to operate at optimum levels at all times. Given the high value of kit and equipment, coupled with strict protocols around safety and security, being able to monitor their location and condition is critically important. Introducing digital tools that allow for everything to be tracked in real-time would not only significantly streamline processes and increase productivity, but it would also lower admin costs, reduce the chance of human error, and minimise the risk of things going missing. Combined, these factors are going to boost the profitability and growth of any industry.
- Example: by attaching GPS chips to the equipment, which send coordinates over a wireless system to a centralised database, specialist equipment is able to be located, managed, booked and shared between airports.
Installing ‘intelligent’ lighting into airfields would come with a number of immediate benefits. On the safety and security front, automated lights that switch on and off according to surveillance and tracking systems would make the visual guiding process easier and improve the situational awareness of aircraft. On the environmental front, it would help airfields to save on electricity and increase the efficiency of air traffic flow, which in turn would help to reduce the sector’s carbon footprint.
- Example: runway lights can be controlled in real time by air traffic control to more clearly direct aircraft, complementing the verbal communication between tower and pilots.
Debris on runway
Foreign object debris (FOD) costs the aerospace and aviation industries an estimated $4bn every year, so this is an area that would benefit immensely from digitisation. We have seen first-hand how automating the locating, reporting and photographing of debris significantly speeds up this process from our work with Rolls-Royce, where we developed a smartphone app to reduce FOD damage to engines.
The FOD app allows users to scan objects to capture high quality imagery, accurate GPS location, and size, which are then sent for analysis at a central database.
Rolls-Royce’s president of defence services, Paul Craig.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there were more than 227,000 wildlife strikes with civil aircraft in the US between 1990 and 2019. Not only do these strikes damage aircraft, they result in human injuries and fatalities too. Many wildlife hazard management systems still rely on manual recording processes and lack the level of detailed reporting and real-time analysis of trends that a digital system can provide. With over half of bird strikes occurring between July and October – when young birds have fledged from nests and migration occurs – digitising airside wildlife management processes is critical for the future protection of wildlife habitats.
- Example: airport wildlife biologists use digital systems to document wildlife observations, mapping areas of increased wildlife activity and hotspots. This data is then used to guide management recommendations and strategies.
Airport runways and taxiways are dangerous places to be, with airport ground staff responsible for the many signs and markings that ensure the smooth running of airside operations. Automating the process would bring with it many benefits, from making work environments safer for staff to speeding up what are often time-consuming, manual tasks.
- Example: Tiny robots are already being used to make markings on runways, helping to reduce maintenance downtime, minimise the risk of human error, and increase safety in construction and maintenance. Additionally, by programming them with existing CAD data, the robots ensure markings are sufficiently maintained and they are able to monitor and report them in real-time. They are able to work through the night, too.
Spot checks on airfield drivers
Digital solutions don’t have to be risky or radical – they can simply make existing processes faster and more reliable. Take airfield spot checks, for example, which are a critical part of safety and security protocols. Manually obtaining this level of security clearance takes time and effort, and usually involves a lot of spreadsheets and ticking names off a list.
- Example: a device is used to scan an ID barcode that links up to a database of who is and isn’t allowed on-site, allowing airport personnel to carry out these checks quickly while adding an extra layer of security.
Grass / landscaping maintenance
Garden equipment powered by the Internet of Things already exists and these technologies could easily be integrated onto airfields to improve the management of grassy areas and surrounding habitats. This can also save a lot of the human hours that go into the upkeep and maintenance of large airfield landscapes.
- Example: by using digital tools to monitor the weather and forecast rainfall, as well as automate sprinklers in line with airfield activities, airfields are able to prevent flooding and save water, helping to reduce maintenance costs and water bills.
Just like cars, different aircraft run on different fuels and getting that wrong can cause serious damage to the engine. With the added risk of the engine failing completely while taking off or in the air, there is no room for human error when it comes to fuelling a plane. Digitising the fuelling process would significantly minimise the risk of using the wrong fuel while streamlining the process and reducing operational costs.
- Example: refuelling operators could feed details into an automated system which keeps records of fuel types, refuelling performance and consumption. In addition to increasing fuel efficiency, reducing waste and carbon emissions, operational staff would have access to intelligence that allows them to better understand flight trends and issues.
Challenges and opportunities
Due to the aerospace and defence sector being a highly secure environment with strict protocols, any kind of digital transformation could raise concerns around the security of digital data. According to this report from Accenture, 75% of industry executives believe cybersecurity risks will grow substantially over the next few years as they adopt new and enhanced business technologies. Artificial intelligence tops the list of concerns with 84% believing this will increase cyber risk moderately or significantly, followed by mobile computing (82%) and IoT (80%).
There may also be concerns around the cost and complexity of introducing a new system with existing legacy systems, and so careful thought will need to go into weighing up whether the opportunity outweighs the cost. However, from our experience of working in this industry, and on a variety of digital transformation projects more broadly, digital solutions usually fit in neatly with these legacy processes and rarely require a major overhaul. As the McKinsey report referenced earlier suggests: the opportunity to digitise the aerospace and defence industry will far outweigh the costs.
Having looked at some examples of digital place management in practice, it’s clear that despite these concerns, all the benefits around efficiency, health and safety, security and sustainability mean that digital place management has the potential to transform the aerospace and defence industry.