Augmented Reality in the Aerospace Industry

There are many use cases for Augmented Reality in the aerospace industry and the leaders in this industry have a long history with the technology. In this post, we review some of the milestones and provide highlights of the recent AREA webinar.

In 1969, while working in the Human Engineering Division of the Armstrong Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory (USAF), Wright-Patterson AFB, Thomas Furness presented a paper entitled “Helmet-Mounted Displays and their Aerospace Applications” to attendees of the National Aerospace Electronics Conference.

Over 20 years later the paper was one of eight references cited by two Boeing engineers, Thomas Caudell and David Mizell. In their 1992 paper published in the Proceedings of the Twenty-Fifth Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Caudell and Mizell coined the term “Augmented Reality.” The degree to which the team drew from the work of Furness, who had started the Human Interface Technology Lab at University of Washington in 1989, is unclear but the focus of the Boeing team was on reducing errors when building wire harnesses for use in aircraft and other manual manufacturing tasks in aerospace. 


While the technology was not sufficiently mature to leave the lab or to deliver on its potential at the time, they suggested that with an AR-assisted system an engineer would in the future be able to perform tasks more quickly and with fewer errors. 

Proof of Concepts

Approximately fifteen years later, in 2008, Paul Davies, a research & development engineer at AREA member Boeing began working with Boeing Technical Fellow, Anthony Majoros. Together, Davies and Majoros picked up where the Caudell and Mizell paper left off. They used commercially-available technologies such as Total Immersion’s D’Fusion platform to show how technicians building satellites could perform complex tasks with Augmented Reality running on tablets.

Airbus has also been experimenting with Augmented Reality for over a decade. In this paper published in the ISMAR 2006 proceedings, Dominik Willers explains how Augmented Reality was being studied for assembly and service tasks but judged too immature for introduction into production environments. The paper, authored in collaboration with the Technical University of Munich, focused on the need for advances in tracking. 

Since those proof of concept projects, AR technology has advanced to the point that it is being explored for an increasing number of use cases in the aerospace industry. In parallel with the expansion of use cases, the pace of applied research into AR-enabling technology components has not abated.

Augmented Reality in Aerospace in 2016

While today AR may not be found in many aerospace production environments, the promise of the technology to increase efficiency is widely acknowledged.

On February 18, David Doral of AERTEC Solutions, Jim Novack of Talent Swarm, and Raul Alarcon of the European Space Agency joined Paul Davies and me to discuss the status of Augmented Reality in their companies and client projects.

Each participant described the use cases and drivers for Augmented Reality adoption. For Boeing, the key metrics are reduction of errors and time to task completion. Use cases include training and work assistance. AERTEC Solutions, which works closely with Airbus, and Talent Swarm are both focusing on use cases where live video from a head-mounted camera can bring greater understanding of a technician’s context and questions, and permit more rapid analysis and resolution of issues.

The European Space Agency sees a variety of use cases on Earth and in space. Inspection and quality assurance, for example, could benefit from the use of Augmented Reality-assisted systems.

Turbulence Ahead 

During the discussion, webinar panelists explored the obstacles that continue to prevent full-scale adoption. In general, most barriers to adoption can be considered as technological in nature. But there are also significant obstacles stemming from human factors and business considerations. We also discussed the degree to which other industries may be able to apply lessons learned from aerospace.

To learn more about the state of AR in the aerospace industry, please watch the webinar archive.

Do you have use cases and projects that you would like to share with the AREA and our audiences? Please let us know in the comments of this post.


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