Disruptive Approaches to Automated Test Equipment

In 2019, automated test and airborne data loading technology is being disrupted by the introduction of never seen before technological concepts, including the world’s first cockpit control panel robot tester.

Aircraft system and component test and airborne data loader equipment makers are also bringing disruptive new technological concepts that are making it much easier to perform test and evaluation of aircraft systems and components.

Here, interviews with Astronics, ATEQ, CCX, Lufthansa Technik and Teledyne Controls provide insight into how automated testing and airborne data loading technology is evolving and expanding globally.

A Robot for Airplane Cockpit Control Testing

Lufthansa Technik is reducing between one to two hours of human labor through the introduction of a new robot that is capable of performing cockpit control panel testing. Right now, Lufthansa’s engineers are fine-tuning the robot and it’s project team leader has not stated whether they will make it commercially available for purchase or keep it exclusively to be used by engineers at Lufthansa’s Hamburg, Germany commercial airplane maintenance hangar.

The project has been officially branded by Lufthansa Technik as Robot Controlled Cockpit Electronics Testing (ROCCET).

One of the main human labor testing tasks that the robot will help automate is the physical threshold values for the brightness of LED displays.

“In view of the rapidly growing market of collaborative robots we were at first looking for use cases to reduce manual work efforts by employing a co-working robot. When this effort did not result in a fully collaborative robot, we went one step further and completely automated the whole test procedure,” said Florian Sell, Lufthansa Technik’s project leader for ROCCET.

According to Sell, the time-consuming process of checking all of the LED lights and switches in a cockpit panel can take one to two hours. The cockpit panels are removed from aircraft and then maintenance workers must check each individual switch one by one. If no fault is found, that hour is lost on time that could have been used to identify an actual fault.

“The time-consuming check of all the LED lights and switches in a cockpit panel usually took even a trained worker one to two hours. Now that ROCCET takes over this task, the human worker can fully concentrate on the core elements of his job, which is finding and rectifying faults in the cockpit panel,” said Sell.

The robot is also capable of providing the same concrete measurement data in accordance with internationally acceptable airworthiness standards that modern software tablet-based programs used by technicians can capture. There are also sensors built into it’s automated testing functionality that can measure the forces that occur when switches are activated in flight and whether a switch or other panel control needs to be replaced.

“The automated testing process is currently in its integration phase and will replace the manual testing process step by step. Initially it will be used for cockpit controls on Airbus A320 and A350 and Boeing’s 787. In the future, its use may also be extended to other cockpit and cabin controls on all aircraft types,” he said.

Digital Touchscreen Interfaces

New test equipment designed by Astronics, ATEQ, CCX and Teledyne Controls are evidence of a trend among suppliers favoring easy to understand digital touchscreen interfaces that condense the capabilities of separate testers into tablet-controlled functionality.

CCX President Chris Bartlett said the Canadian test equipment supplier’s new T-RX radio and pulse tester was designed with the next generation of aircraft technicians in mind. The T-RX has a 10-inch touchscreen and uses proprietary applications to perform more than 100 different tests ranging from transponder frequency sensitivity to ARINC 429 label encoding and decoding among others.

The tester has an internal antenna and can wirelessly collect data and transfer it to a maintenance repair shop’s internally used servers and electronic work order systems. Bartlett said CCX wanted to make the new tester easy to understand and replicable of Android and Apple smartphone and tablet graphical user interfaces.

“Although there’s optional wired interfaces, greater than 90 percent of the time you don’t need to hardwire yourself into anything,” said Bartlett.

TR-X is aircraft agnostic, although Bartlett said there are nuances to specific avionics manufacturers and technicians need to be knowledgeable of different radio frequencies used by different manufacturers as well.

Aircraft testing data and results are available through cloud storage, and CCX is working on a new application programmable interface at the moment to improve that process as well. Effectively, they want to give individual maintenance facilities the ability to transmit the data collected by the TR-X into the software programs that they already use for storage or customer facing activities so that those will not have to be replicated by using one of CCX’s proprietary apps.

“We’re hearing from MROs that they’re not interested in logging into another application if they already have one for storage. So, being able to pull the data collected by TR-X into apps that they already using is very interesting to them,” said Bartlett.

A next generation airborne data loader uses the same type of digital touchscreen interface approach as the TR-X, in the form of the new Portable Maintenance Access Terminal (PMAT XS) from Teledyne Controls. Craig Aitken, senior director of business development at Teledyne Controls said the new airborne data loader was designed with the avionics full duplex ethernet and ARINC 615-4 and 615A-3 high speed data loading standards in mind.

“We’ve added Wi-Fi and cellular, and designed the menu icons to be recognizable like those we observe in modern smartphones and tablets,” said Craig Aitken, senior business development director at Teledyne Controls.

PMAT XS’s mobile operating system also incorporates the use of ARINC 835 digital signatures to secure the software parts as they’re loaded into an aircraft’s various line replaceable units. A trusted platform module within the software stack is capable of storing digital keys and burning them into a computer chip featured inside of the loader that is responsible for confirming software is free of bugs or corrupt files.

“It uses a public key infrastructure certificate,” said Aitken.

“When the boot loader starts it will check its digital signature against what’s stored on the trusted platform module. If they both match they continue with the boot, and if it doesn’t it stops,” he said.

Not Completely Wireless

At the wire fault detection end of the automated test equipment spectrum, the use of the digital touchscreen interface is also being embraced by the test systems division of Astronics. Their new ATS-6100 wire fault combines the use of low energy, high voltage and spread spectrum time domain reflectometer technology in one box.

Brian Price, executive vice president of Astronics Test Systems said the digital touchscreen interface and Windows mobile operating system helps to reduce the amount of time required to learn how to use the ATS-6100. The new wire fault detector is capable of discovering opens, shorts, impedance discontinuities, and cracking or chafing within aircraft wiring.

“We refer to the ATS-6100 as a single-ended application because it eliminates the need to terminate the other end of the cable for testing,” said Price.

Once the tester is connected to one end of wiring, it generates a signal to expose the discontinuities along the entire wire path. Traditionally, wire fault testing is performed where a mechanic disconnects the opposite end of the cable, which can be potentially damaging and even generate an incorrect fault status if the wrong connector is removed. To remove that step, which involves searching through a network of wires on the other end of the cable, the ATS-6100 controls the entire output of the signal to completely isolate the location of a fault.

While new test equipment designs are incorporating digital touchscreen interfaces and wireless transmission and acquisition of aircraft data, there will remain a need for wired and cabled connections to aircraft systems well into the future.

Patrick Brousseau, who manages the North American division of aviation test equipment manufacturer ATEQ, said his company was the first to market with a wireless touchscreen Windows tablet-based air data test set in 2014. That air data test set, the ADSE-650, is designed to test altimeters, airspeed indicators and pressure sensors and other instruments that require a physical connection to provide a fault reading.

That type of testing, will not become wireless any time soon, said Brousseau, but will instead become more size, weight and power optimized.

“What I really see now is the push for downsizing. Air data test sets, just 20 years ago, these things were massive. Some of the older instruments were 80 to 90 pounds and had to be wheeled around on the ground for setup. Our newest wireless unit weighs 13 pounds. That’s where the market is going to continue to go in the future,” said Brousseau.

“These systems are still going to rely on a pressure indication and there is always a need for redundancy in aviation, even in the highest tech commercial aircraft, there will be no going away from transducer type pressure testing any time soon,” he said.

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