Turbomeca considers 24/7 operator engine connection

 - January 29, 2009, 8:15 AM

French-based turboshaft manufacturer Turbomeca has completed a European Commission-funded research program that opens the door to a massive collection of usage and maintenance data on helicopter engines. The idea is to have engines sending an exhaustive set of data, after each flight, to a centralized server. The U25.7 million ($33 million) system for mobile maintenance accessible in real time (Smmart) program, led by Turbomeca, ended last fall after three years. Entry
into service of an operational system is scheduled for 2011.

Program coordinator Jean-Louis Boucon explained how the system worked. “Each time the engine is shut down, a small transmitter sends data such as engine configuration [with part numbers], flight hours, number of flight cycles, temperatures and incident reports that include background information,” he told AIN during the April to July demonstration program last year. The transmitter weighs nearly half a pound.

The data is then sent to the central database, generally through the GSM network but occasionally through a satellite connection or Wi-Fi-enabled PC.

In addition, the system is designed to “feel” configuration changes. As Boucon explained, line replaceable units are fitted with RFID tags. An onboard antenna detects changes. “Flight times can thus be allocated to the right parts,” he said. The software at the central database can also determine whether the configuration is airworthy.

The on-board sensors are part of a wireless network, so there is no need to add wiring every time a sensor (such as a temperature probe) is installed. The system automatically recognizes the sensor, said Boucon.

Once the data is gathered, it is made available to operators, Turbomeca technicians and so on. The data may be used for trend monitoring, maintenance planning, diagnosis, airworthiness alarms and so on.

Boucon deemed the demonstration program a success. However, there are some challenges to overcome before the Smmart research program morphs into an industrial application. First, Turbomeca must convince all operators–representing more than 13,000 engines–of the advantages of participating. Another challenge is raising the capital needed–tens of millions of euros– for a 24/7 fleetwide system.

Boucon pointed out that data collection must not affect the utility of the aircraft, and in terms of engine removal frequency the impact must be negligible.

He hopes to offer Turbomeca customers a Smmart-like service in 2011. Should Eurocopter (a Smmart partner) decide to put the airframe on the same information highway, there would be a single transmitter aboard the helicopter, monitoring both the engine and the airframe.    

Two Dozen Firms Cooperate on Project

Among the 24 partners in the Turbomeca-led Smmart program are Eurocopter, Thales, Snecma Services and Volvo Trucks. Participating universities include institutes in Warsaw, Milan, Stuttgart and Biarritz, France. The €25.7 million ($33 million) budget is shared among industry, various local authorities and the European Commission, which contributed €11.6 million ($14.7 million). Program leader Turbomeca has supplied €2 million ($2.5 million).