Emerging Technology Skills Gap Threatens Aviation Education, MRO

By Kathryn B. Creedy

Key Takeaways:

  • Aviation Educators See Skills Gap for AAM/UAM, Hybrid & Hydrogen Powerplants, Unmanned Cargo and Space Needs and Prepare New Curricula
  • MROs Risk Being Left Behind as New, Powerful Players Enter Market
  • Emerging Technology is Gateway to Attracting More to Aviation/Aerospace
  • MRO Model May be Upended
  • Part 147 Reform Takes on New Urgency as FAA Fails to Act
  • New Super Technician, Deployed to On-Site Operations, Will Be Needed

Officials at advanced air mobility (AAM/UAM), eVTOL, hybrid and hydrogen power, Large Unmanned Cargo Aircraft (LUCA) and commercial space companies are already worried they face a lack of qualified maintenance workers as their technologies become operational. They are concerned, with current curricula and traditional MRO practices, they will not find the services and skills necessary to support their industries. In response, aviation maintenance schools are listening and beginning now to ensure they are ready.

Utah Valley University, for example, established a new degree program developed for A&P technicians to use their credentials to earn a BS degree in Aerospace Technology Management. Its new coursework includes critical topics associated with emerging technology such as Research Topics in Urban Air Mobility & Autonomous UAS; Aerospace Aftermarket Support Services; Aerospace Vehicle Certification, Reliability Maintenance Systems and Aerospace Technology Management Capstone Project. In addition, with the recent acquisition of Singapore-based Air Transport Training College, the school will be investing in course work for emerging technologies including AAM/UAM and artificial intelligence.

“This advanced technology is beyond the current scope of Part 147 school curriculum and it will profoundly impact the requirements in the future,” Utah Valley University Associate Professor, School of Aviation Sciences Stephen Ley told Future Aviation/Aerospace Workforce News (FA/AW News). “These manufacturers are familiar with Part 147 standards and are concerned they will not be sufficient to support high-capacity electrical power storage and associated systems. Distributed electric propulsion systems will be a critical skill required in the future.

“MROs and manufacturers will be looking for highly skilled ‘super technicians’, someone with both A&P and avionics expertise rolled into one,” he continued. “We need to integrate these two disciplines so we can keep emergent aircraft safely operational, compliant to certification requirements and reliable. Traditional aircraft will not go away but they will evolve to include the XTI Aircraft Trifan 600, Joby S4 and the magniX-electric-powered Caravan.”

Opportunity to Attract More Interest in Industry

Adjunct Instructor School of Aviation Sciences Utah Valley University Aaron Organ pointed out these new industries provide aviation schools, manufacturers and MROs with a gateway to a future workforce, where  perception problems belie the fact aviation maintenance technicians are highly skilled and highly paid.

“This technology is new and exciting and can be used by schools and industry to spike interest,” said Organ. “We have a workforce shortage. Lets use this to our advantage to expose young people to the opportunities for high-tech jobs.”

Ley and Organ addressed these and other issues surrounding this new emerging technology as part of an Aviation Technical Education Council (ATEC) webinar last week to alert both aviation and MRO industries of the urgent need for change. The AAM/UAM industry, they said, has not shut down during Covid as illustrated by successful flights during the summer by magniX and the hydrogen-powered Piper by ZeroAvia.

“Sustainability is driving this,” Organ explained. “UAM integration will lead to sustainable transportation and the need for sustainable transportation is key to growth, city and regional planning. We are on the horizon of a new age of aviation and aerospace. This is no longer science fiction. It’s flying now and we need to be ready.”

They urged schools and MROs to take action to ensure A&P and avionics graduates have the skills needed. This has been helped tremendously by the FAA acceptance of ASTM’s NCATT Aircraft Electronics Technician certification in 2018.

“This future is inevitable and if you look at the technology,” said Ley. “We can leverage existing competencies and skills. These technologies will be additive to that. So many groups are working independently to provide solutions for workforce development. An airline can afford to have a separation of specializations, A&P and Avionics. Even MROs can afford to do so as the talent cost is distributed across a variety of airframes. However, AAM, its operational environment, and its likely limited business operating margins, may require a single technician to support the entire airframe on the flight line for line maintenance.”

Credit: Utah Valley University

Challenges for MROs

The challenges for the MRO community will be dramatic, changing the location of service.

“There will be an increased demand for equipment, support talent, logistics and supply chain, facilities and zoning for air operations within a metropolitan area,” Ley explained. “UAM is relatively short range in urban environments. It needs MRO on site where they are operating or co-located within their infrastructure. Third party service providers currently used by OEMs and operators are not conversant with UAM/AAM tech so they have to get up to speed to ensure their technicians are qualified and competent on these aircraft. This is an opportunity for the ATEC community to think differently about where our pipeline comes from and understand graduates will have other choices with new players who already have vast support networks.”

Organ cautioned that new players are entering the market which could threaten the MRO business model.

“Joby Aviation received $395 million from Toyota and has a certification target by 2023,” he said. “Uber Elevate is partnering the Hyundai. Both have service-center networks already in place which will compete with traditional MROs. These new companies do not have the existing infrastructure and qualified professionals to support their products so their best solution is to leverage the expertise of established, certified Part 145 repair stations but MROs must build the expertise and capabilities to respond.”

Part 147 Reform Takes on New Urgency

Ley, who is also active in Utah Aerospace Education Association (UAEA), reviewed the skills needed.

“Systems will be highly integrated and complex,” he said. “The industry is working on high-capacity battery storage systems and associated charging, electricity regulations and safety sub-systems. Other subjects include high-torque electric motors with fully integrated thrust management and flight control systems and associated structures. There is also automated flight systems including ground and object proximity sensors for collision avoidance and highly integrated and interdependent instrumentation, navigation and datalink systems that will be interlinked with ground-based unmanned air traffic management system or low-altitude air traffic management. These new aircraft will have integrated airframe and propulsion monitoring systems to perform fault isolation, system health monitoring and post-maintenance functional checks and composite primary structures and forms all of which will be required skills in the future.

Organ pointed to other new technologies including alternative energy to improve powerplants, noting research and development are in full swing and flying and expected to be certificated in the next couple of years. He cited ZeroAvia’s hydrogen-power demonstration this summer of a modified Piper aircraft. He added Airbus is already working on a 100% hydrogen-fueled aircraft for 200 passengers with a realistic EIS in 2035.

“We will see continual improvement of power plants as we search for more efficient fuel burn and clean sustainable energy,” said Organ. “Many companies are in various stages of R&D and testing of hybrid, all electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft, driven by our quest for sustainability and their potential to significantly reduce operational costs.”

Efforts to reform the Part 147 rules, now before Congress with House and Senate bills –  Promoting Aviation Regulations for Technical Training (PARTT) 147 Act – directs FAA to finally act on widely supported, more flexible curriculum. Such a move would remove and replace current Part 147 with community-drafted language that would replace prescriptive and duplicative operational requirements and curriculum hour and subject area mandates with new performance-based regulations. This would give schools and employers the freedom to develop programs that better align with industry needs and ensure individuals begin their careers equipped to hit the ground running, according to ATEC Executive Director Crystal Maguire, who has been championing the effort for years.

Reform now takes on new urgency since it is already hard to deliver curriculum now used at Part 147 schools in 1900 hours and 24 months. With new requirements needed to support these emerging technologies it could mean expanding training requirements.

Sea Change for Aviation Education and MRO

“This new technology changes everything,” said Ley. “We need to update the technical and qualification standards and pay close attention to maintenance, repair and overhaul. There will be an evolution in MRO deployment. This will affect regional and rural transportation networks, air taxis and small package delivery for medical and other cargo. This will have a dramatic impact on demographics, where people live and will change how we support disparate communities. In addition to the new technical education standards, regulations need changing. The new technology impacts maintenance and inspection criteria and existing certification standards will have to adapt. We need to develop consensus standards.”

The major players are Airbus with its E-Fan, VoltAero’s Cassio 2 and magniX Magni500, a 750hp all-electric Cessna Caravan, expected to be certified by the end of 2021. magniX is also working with Universal Hydrogen on converting the de Havilland Dash 8 regional airliner to electric propulsion which will have implications for ATR-42s and 72s.

Demand for New Tech Aircraft Goes Beyond Air Taxi

“Large Unmanned Cargo Aircraft (LUCA) will have payloads accommodating 100 to 250,000 pounds on routes that go from 200 to 10,000 miles,” said Ley. “Look at Natilus’s unmanned lifting body and unmanned seaplane which promised to reduce cargo rates by 50%,  Sabrewing’s Rhaegal and Elroy Air’s Chaparral, both expected to be operational by 2022. Garuda is already considering using unmanned systems to serve 18,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago, now only served by sea, using China’s Beihang Technology. FedEx and other cargo haulers are already exploring unmanned cargo flights. EASA is ahead of the FAA in publishing certification standards for autonomous eVTOLS.”

Other aircraft include XTI Trifan 600 as an example and the Italdesign Airbus Pop Up to name just two of the 361 efforts listed on the Vertical Flight Society site. He indicated the global drone logistics market generated $24 million in revenue in 2018 and is expected to be a $1.6 billion industry by 2027. These aircraft promise lower operating costs and operational flexibility to serve isolated areas.

Commercial Space Part of the New Tech

Commercial Space, 80% of which is funded by private capital such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin to name just a few of the hundreds who want a slice of the space pie, is already flying and involved in space exploration, missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond and developing satellite innovations.

Credit: Space Foundation

Commercial space, is, in fact, the fastest growing aviation/aerospace sector with ambitions at more than 100 launches annually, translating into thousands of high-tech opportunities for aviation and avionics technicians needed to repair and overhaul reusable launch vehicles.

Ley advised schools and MROs to tap all the resources developed by NBAA, GAMA, Vertical Flight Society, FAA, NASA and ASTM. These organizations embraced the new technology and how it will impact their industries. He also said they, at the very least, should start introducing students and the workforce to these new technologies which are rapidly developing.

ATEC Leading the Way

ATEC and the two professors are leading in guiding membership on the future. They proposed developing an emerging technologies committee to strategically examine the impact on the aviation/aerospace industry and how to adapt their programs to ensure students are prepared for new-age technology.

“The introduction of this new technology will widen the existing gap in Part 147 AMT standards,” said Ley. “We need to assess UAM maintenance requirements. We need a task analysis of what skills and tools will be required and we then need a gap analysis with existing curricula. We can then make recommendations on how to pursue the integration of these advanced technologies into the general airframe and powerplant curricula in schools. If the FAA won’t mandate, we can’t wait. We have to do it ourselves. The FAA already allows you to add to Part 147 curricula but we need to develop learning modules and objectives that integrate this technology.”

AAM/UAM, changing powerplants and commercial space will have profound impacts on the aviation education, MRO and aerospace industries and, listening to Organ and Ley, it is passed time to prepare for their integration.

Published by Kathryn B. Creedy

Kathryn B. Creedy is a veteran aviation journalist and communications strategist. My byline has appeared in CNN Travel, The Points Guy, BBC Capital, Los Angeles Times, Forbes Online, The Washington Post, Flyer Talk, Business Traveler, Business Travel Executive, Afar, Flightglobal, Centre for Aviation, Aviation Week & Space Technology, Low Fare & Regional Airlines, Inflight, Business Airports International, Airports, Centerlines, Regional Gateway, Runway Girl Network and Metropolitan Airport News among others. In 2018, I was cited for the Sapphire Pegasus Business Aviation Award for her work as a business aviation journalist. Created four newsletters, including two web publications Author: Time Flies - The History of SkyWest Airlines. Consistently received bonuses or commendations throughout my career. Founded Commuter/Regional Airline News, building it to become the bible of the industry. Co-founded C/R Airline News International to cover Europe. Founding editor of Aviation Today's Daily Brief, VLJ Report. Founding Senior Analyst North America for Centre for Aviation and North American Editor for Low Fare & Regional Airlines and Inflight. Key Words: Aviation, travel, business jets, commercial, aircraft, airlines, publishing, public relations, corporate communications, media specialist,

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