IoT bolsters military maintenance activities

The Air Force is embracing IoT-powered maintenance technology.

By Max Burkhalter
November 21, 2017
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The U.S. Air Force spends approximately $46.4 million per year on maintenance activities, according to research from the RAND Institute. A large percentage of this amount goes toward managing the more than 5,400 aircraft that reside in military hangars across the globe, the Heritage Foundation found. These assets are essential to American defense strategy and require immense upkeep. With this maintenance burden in mind, stakeholders in the branch have been searching for ways to bring down associated costs. Recently, these Air Force leaders stumbled upon a potentially actionable solution: internet of things technology.

This is, of course, not an entirely novel notion. In recent years, manufacturers and other industrial firms embraced preventive maintenance strategies centered on connected sensors and other web-enabled devices. As a result, the global industrial sensor market is expanding at a compound annual growth rate of more than 11 percent and is expected to surpass $241 billion by 2022, according to the analysts at Allied Market Research. The Air Force seems to have joined the growing cadre of public and private organizations investing in these powerful fixtures and the lightweight yet scalable backend systems that support them.

Achieving airborne connection
Earlier this month, the branch partnered with C3 IoT to start work an artificial intelligence-powered platform that would facilitate fleetwide predictive maintenance work, ZDNet reported. The Department of Defense's Defense Innovation Unit Experimental greenlit the collaboration, which it hopes will result in an effective IoT product that bolsters aircraft readiness while cutting expenses. The C3 solution will search through structured and unstructured maintenance data, and leverage machine learning capabilities to map asset deterioration patterns that engineers can use to proactively service aircraft or initiate replacement activities, the Redwood, Washington-based technology firm explained. Amazon Web Services serves as the cloud-based foundation for the IoT product, which will utilize an isolated database that meets stringent DoD data security requirements.

Both C3 and the Air Force hope the eventual solution will reduce the frequency and duration of unscheduled maintenance and facilitate predictive repair activities, ultimately laying the groundwork for improved branch operations. C3 CTO and IoT President Ed Abbo stressed the potential connected maintenance and IoT technology possess, and framed the agreement as a challenge to extract as much power from these fixtures as possible.

"The combination of big data, elastic cloud computing, AI, and IoT is becoming the most significant development of the information age, and is driving the digital transformation of every industry - including aerospace, government services and defense," Abbo explained. "With DIUx, the DoD is demonstrating leadership in moving quickly to integrate these leading-edge technologies into the U.S. military for strategic national security."

The Air Force hopes to modernize its maintenance strategies with IoT.The Air Force hopes to modernize its maintenance strategies with IoT.

Moving maintenance forward
The C3 CTO is accurate in his assessment of industrial IoT technology, especially where it concerns maintenance activities. Manufacturers implementing IoT-powered predictive maintenance strategies are expected to see cost reductions of between 10 percent and 40 percent, as well as 50 percent decreases in machine downtime, according to research from McKinsey and Company. These cost reductions will total between $240 billion and $630 billion by 2025, analysts for the firm found.

In short, IoT can catalyze true operational transformation that bolsters efficiency and reduces controllable risk.

A branch in search of solutions
The Air Force and its fellow branches are certainly in need of such improvements. In recent years, aircraft shortages due to maintenance backlog have adversely affected airborne defense operations. Back in 2016, this worsening problem came to a head when requisition personnel for the U.S. Marine Corps were forced to recommission soon-to-be-salvaged planes lying in boneyards, CNN reported. Maj. Gen. Scott West, director of current operations for Air Force headquarters, articulated the many factors behind the DoD-wide aircraft shortage during a meeting with the House of Representatives Committee on Armed Service on July 6, 2016, mere days before the Marines announced its aircraft recover efforts. Here, West took the opportunity to outline the maintenance challenges facing his branch, according to House documents.

"The shortfall is exacerbated by the increased costs to maintain and sustain older fleets," he explained. "Since the average age of our Air Force fleet is 27 years old, most of our aircraft require extensive maintenance."

West went on to explain that increased investments in maintenance staffing and technology were essential to combat readiness. It appears that the branch is taking the general's words seriously, if this latest deal is any indication. That said, the C3 team and the Air Force maintenance workers rolling out the new IoT platform have considerable work ahead of them. As West stated in his address to the House Armed Services Committee, the existing fleet is beset with age-related wear and tear. Corrosion is by far the most consequential force affecting the aircraft, researchers for the RAND Institute found. Many Air Force planes exhibit exfoliation and stress oxidization that requires near constant attention. Hopefully, the C3 platform will allow maintenance staff to take preventive steps and stop the development of corrosion.

As the Air Force and other military branches embrace the power of IoT, Perle will be there to provide the connective framework required to operation large-scale connected industrial workflows. Connect with us today to learn more about our work in the defense sector.


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