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Overcoming Training Challenges With Augmented RealityText by Divan Muller Photographs courtesy of Advanced Composites Training It is no secret that covid-19 related restrictions have presented immense challenges, not only to the aviation industry as a whole, but also to training organizations. One Canadian company is using cutting-edge technology, augmented and mixed reality, to overcome these challenges. Advanced Composites Training (ACT), along with company founder Wilson Boynton, are known and respected internationally for advanced training in composite repairs and construction. Background
To find out more about this company and its innovative training methods, we spoke to Wilson Boynton. He had developed a love for aircraft from a young age, as his father served with the Royal Canadian Air Force, and he therefore grew up around aircraft. As it happens, Boynton has been a member of the London International Airshow’s aircraft support group from 1981. During the late 1980s, he was employed as an Air Ontario aircraft mechanic. Shortly after the company had received its first Dash 8, something happened that would change the course of Boynton’s career. “We owned that aircraft for three weeks, before it was severely damaged by a truck hitting the port engine nacelle. The entire nacelle was built from composites, and we found out that not one of our 88 technicians had ever been trained in composites,” he recalled. Boynton then discovered that the only place he could find a Transport Canada approved training course was in the United States. He had always liked new technology, so he travelled to the US and completed a number of courses on composites. He then went to Los Angeles to complete a design programme for composites in aircraft at the University of California.
Upon his return to Canada, Boynton had a realization, “I thought this is an interesting business model. I have no competition!”
He then founded the first Transport Canada approved private training institute for aircraft composite structural repairs, Renaissance Aeronautics Associates (RAA), which served as an Aviation Maintenance Organization (AMO) and Aviation Training Organization (ATO). To avoid any confusion between the company’s training and maintenance roles, Boynton later started act to serve as the company’s training brand. Act has civil and military customers from all over the world. As a result, “we have a cadre of international industry and subject matter experts that we utilize as required.” Act also partners with training organizations in Europe and Asia to cater for their respective markets. Currently, the Royal Netherlands Air Force is arguably act’s best customer. According to Boynton, “we have been training them since 2011 in structural repairs of their entire fleet, including the F-35.”
Interestingly, about a year ago, Boynton was hired by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) to travel to JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) in Pasadena, California, where he was tasked with training a group of engineers who were working on the Perseverance Mars rover. Training, skills shortages and employment opportunities
Act offers eighteen courses in numerous different technologies, ranging from wind turbines to marine structural repair. “Essentially, if it is built from composites, we have a training course specific to that,” said Boynton. In terms of aviation, act’s most popular course is Module 1 (essential composites, materials and processes), followed by Module 2 (advanced structural repairs), and the Resin Infusion course.
It is widely known that there is a severe skills shortage in the aviation industry, both nationally and internationally, but how has covid-19 impacted that shortage and the demand for training? According to Boynton, “I believe the true depth of the skills shortage will be startlingly evident as the aviation industry begins to recover in the post-pandemic phase. Many AMEs (Aircraft Maintenance Engineers) and technicians I have spoken to are choosing to retire or leave the instability of this industry behind. I think there is going to be a dramatic lack of skilled labour available as we transition.” As it is, despite the pandemic, many maintenance organizations just can’t keep up with their workloads. Even the maintenance side of RAA has its challenges in terms of keeping up with customers’ composite repairs. “What we do is so highly specialized that finding anyone with skills, that you don’t have to train and monitor every minute of the process, is extremely difficult to find. I always tell my students that if you’re not working in the composites industry, it’s because you don’t want to.”
How many of these courses would one have to complete in order to find employment in the aviation industry? According to Boynton, “One. That would be our Module 1 course.” He continued, “We have now been training for 25 years. We have a 100 percent placement rate.” It is astonishing that every unemployed private individual who has ever attended one of act’s courses had multiple job interviews before completing the course, and every one of them was immediately employed upon completing the course.
In terms of act’s training programmes, Boynton added, “Before the COVID crisis hit, we had standing orders from companies for forty technicians.” Companies would frequently contact act to see whether there were any students whom they could employ. When COVID restrictions became the norm, in-person training at act’s facilities became impossible. A different method of training had to be developed. Using technology to overcome challenges
“covid-19 has seriously affected our business, as in-person, hands-on training at our institute has not been possible since last April,” said Boynton. “That is why we have been concentrating on the development of our augmented reality courses.”
The first of these courses took place in December 2020, when an ict (Information on Composite Technologies) course was presented to Transport Canada employees. “That course does not involve hands-on work. It involves materials, processes, inspection, non-destructive testing; it is an overview of all the applicable technologies for aviation composites,” explained Boynton.
These live and interactive courses are made possible with the use of Microsoft’s HoloLens 2, which makes the experience much more valuable than a simple live video feed. “When I’m wearing the HoloLens, the experience is completely interactive with online students.” Essentially, students see the environment from Boynton’s perspective and can ask questions or request that he point at or pick up components. He continued, “I can immediately split between a Powerpoint presentation or slide deck and then immediately back to having them see what I see. Then I can also load holographic images in mid-air.” These holographic images of aircraft or components can be rotated or ‘exploded’ to show substructures or layers. Instructing with a HoloLens certainly makes teaching more versatile. “I can use my cellphone as a hotspot and walk right onto the ramp and right up to an aircraft’s engine, or I can walk into a workshop and do anything in any location.” There is now real limit to how many students can attend a course simultaneously, but due to its interactive nature, act limits class sizes to about twenty students. With students from any location around the world, courses are scheduled at any time of day or night. At the end of our interview, Boynton used the HoloLens to give me a tour of act’s well-equipped facilities, which include a special room where virtual reality can be used for specialized technical training.
When it comes to composite technologies, ongoing training is essential. “Our company motto is ‘helping you stay ahead of the leading edge,’ and that’s a message to all technicians and engineers.” Boynton added, “Composites technologies are changing so rapidly, that focussed professional training is the only way to keep up with the skills needed today and for the very near future.”