Singapore Air Show

ST Aerospace Shows MRO and UAV Innovations, Unmanned Freighter

 - February 5, 2018, 9:00 AM
A part of what ST Aerospace calls “Smart MRO” is its augmented reality capabilities, which are being demonstrated at the company’s exhibit to help a technician mount an aircraft wheel. Photo: David McIntosh

ST Aerospace opened the show with two contract announcements that typify the main source of its revenue today—MRO for premium customers such as Air Canada and Lufthansa. And on Wednesday, ST Aero is expected to announce a launch customer for its passenger-to-freighter (P2F) conversion of the Airbus A320 family. But the company’s stand also shows some imaginative innovations for the future, such as the networking of a fleet of UAVs, and a possible unmanned commercial airfreighter.

For Air Canada, ST Aero will reconfigure the interior of some Boeing 787s at its U.S. affiliate, VT San Antonio Aerospace. That location has already secured the C-checks for Air Canada’s 787s, and for the heavy maintenance of the 787s of two other North American airlines. For Lufthansa, ST Aero will be doing heavy maintenance of MD-11 freighters over the next five years here in Singapore, under a contract worth $30 million.

ST Aero claims to be the largest airframe MRO service provider in the world. It recently opened a new hangar at the EFW facility in Dresden that is co-owned with Airbus, and will soon do the same at its San Antonio, Texas, facility. The company offers the flexibility to do MRO and P2F work on three continents: North America, Europe and Asia.

At the show, ST Aero is demonstrating what it terms “Smart MRO”—the use of additive manufacturing, augmented reality, data analytics, and robotics to speed turnround times and help maintain competitiveness. Visitors will see how engineers can wear augmented reality glasses to help them safely remove and refit the axle nuts of an aircraft wheel.

Regarding data analytics, “We were ahead of our time in the trend toward making the shop floor paperless,” said Lim Serh Ghee, president of ST Aero. But, he told AIN, the original tablets that were introduced were too heavy. Now they are lighter, and the company’s engineers on the shop floor are using them to photograph defects, request raw materials, and generally communicate with engineering managers upstairs. “This increases safety as well as productivity,” Lim added.

ST Aero has introduced robotic arms to polish engine blades. This has resulted in more consistency, as well as a 50 percent reduction in time, according to Lim. As for additive manufacturing (AM), the company has already used it to demonstrate VIP aircraft completions to potential customers. But Lim cautions that additive manufacturing of primary structure “still has a long way to go.”

Unmanned Freighter

The unmanned freighter concept stems from the idea that with no passenger acceptance to worry about, carriers can first start tackling the shortage of aircrew in the cargo sector of their business. But first steps first. ST Aero will start by studying the elimination of the co-pilot by overlaying artificial intelligence onto the aircraft’s autopilot and flight management system (FMS). The concept requires an additional (remote) pilot on the ground, but that pilot can be supporting up to 12 single-pilot aircraft simultaneously, according to STAero. The display on the stand shows various functions, including auto takeoff, auto altitude change, and auto weather avoidance.

The UAV networking concept is called DroNet, and it offers centralized command and control of a UAV fleet. A single remote launch station can control and store multiple drones over a small, typically urban area. The applications include deliveries, security, surveillance, and the inspection of infrastructure. DroNet is a drone-agnostic, highly autonomous system that can handle swappable payloads.

Meanwhile, ST Engineering is showing what it describes as “a complete commercial counter-drone solution” named Skyarcher, and a counter-UAS munition that dispenses streamers that disable a drone’s propellers. The ST group claims to be “one of the few MRO service providers in the world that has the depth in engineering expertise to develop end-to-end UAS solutions.”  

In his interview with AIN, Lim declined to answer questions on the company’s work with the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF). But ST Aero essentially performs depot maintenance on the entire RSAF fleet. It also provides front-line maintenance on the RSAF’s Fokker 50s, C-130s, KC-135s and Super Pumas.

ST Aero’s defense business is about one-third of its turnover. But the only evidence of this on the stand is a mock-up of the C-130 cockpit upgrade that was done on the RSAF fleet some years ago. The company subsequently gained a contract to refurbish the small Oman C-130 fleet, and a few aircraft for a North African air force. It has been doing heavy maintenance on the commercial L-100 Hercules fleet of Lynden Air Cargo, plus a cockpit upgrade to this American carrier’s own specification.

See tomorrow’s edition for a full description of ST Engineering’s 50-year history.