The new reality: Can augmented reality solve the military MRO labor shortage?

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The virtual and augmented reality (AR) business is booming – one report predicts the market for the technologies will be worth over $165bn by 2024.

Once seen as a gaming technology, augmented reality is now starting to enter the defense sector with big potential – witness the Dismounted Soldier Training System, the first ever fully immersive virtual simulation system to train US soldiers before being deployed in the battlefield.

Now, the technology is being considered to fulfil another much-needed requirement for defense organizations – to help bridge the global labor shortage which is threating to disrupt mission and asset readiness.

Too complex, too young, too far away

Military assets continue to grow in complexity – the F-35 has 8 million lines of software code, more than four times the amount of its predecessor. This increasing complexity, coupled with the decline in personnel numbers and a maintenance training lag, means keeping equipment maintained and readily available is becoming an extremely difficult management task.

Current mobile solutions, such as smartphones and tablets, support collaboration and drive better data capture, but even these devices can’t fully harness the skills of a maintenance expert halfway across the world when needed. When confronted with a task out of their skill range, junior technicians need to be able to properly demonstrate the problem to an expert and have visual support – maintenance affects airworthiness decisions after all.

Augmenting key skills with a watchful eye

Augmented reality can immediately improve the productivity and performance of maintenance by enabling visual collaboration between less-experienced on-site technicians and off-site experts. Using remote guidance via a wearable or mobile device, engineer skills can be ‘augmented’ as more qualified technicians provide expertise from any location in the world.

Wearable augmented reality systems give maintenance workers a virtual pair of expert eyes and hands to guide them through even the most complex of tasks. Using smart glasses or a mobile device, engineers can see a real-time and interactive demonstration of the repair job right in front of them.

When augmented reality is integrated with a supporting enterprise asset management (EAM) system or maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) solution, the operator can quickly report and complete maintenance tasks and get mission-critical equipment back up and running as soon as possible. Not only does this increase depth of knowledge for trainee technicians, but it can even help decrease total cost of service.

The new reality

The next step will be to develop these solutions to the point where they can be feasibly used on the frontline or in the bowels of an aircraft carrier without compromising repair time, soldier safety or mission success. Functionality will need to be tailored for ease of use in the field, keeping in mind the operating conditions of a soldier or front-line – possibly kitted up in chemical, biological, radioactive and nuclear equipment or in the dark bilge of an at-sea submarine.

But with augmented reality maximizing engineer efficiency, defense forces will no longer have to mind the gap when it comes to maintenance resource shortage. Watch this space as the technology continues to mature in the future.


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