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IVHM-EVOLVE - Ecosystem of Intelligent Self-Organising Sensor Nodes for Helicopter Health Monitoring

21 Jun 2017

Helitune Limited (Lead), XMOS Limited, Queen Mary University of London, University of Bristol

The IVHM-EVOLVE project will develop and produce a distributed sensor network for helicopter health monitoring.  Current commercially‑available health monitoring systems are centralised into a single energy source and are often too heavy and large for small and medium-sized helicopters (with fewer than 9 passengers).  This restricts their potential use in some oil and gas and para-public applications, including law enforcement, due to cost, weight, power requirement, and complexity.

A network of intelligent sensors, which can adapt and prioritise the system around the current health of the aircraft, will significantly enhance the effectiveness and reliability of the health monitoring system.  This will allow for real-time reporting of health issues, resulting in enhanced decision-making, enabling meaningful and timely maintenance actions, to significantly reduce maintenance and installation costs.

The project brings together two industrial partners and two academics to enhance Integrated Vehicle Health Management (IVHM) to previously inaccessible components.  The outcomes will produce health monitoring systems that advance the competitive advantage for the UK IVHM Supply Chain and provide a clear differentiator for future UK helicopter products and access to market weight and role categories that currently do not make use of these systems.

Technology achievements

One key aim of this project is to reduce the weight and cost of the current systems through the application of innovative UK-developed multi-core microprocessor system-on-chip technology.  The focus is therefore on the miniaturisation of distributed sensors, with processing nodes positioned all over the aircraft. The outcome of this project is to reduce the weight and cost of current systems by around 20%.

Carole Murray, Project Manager at Helitune said:

The resulting product would reduce the size of the system from something akin to a standard shoebox to the size of a few Lego bricks by splitting the sensors and systems in the health monitoring system and distributing them around the aircraft, they can optimise the coverage whilst maintaining most of the functionality.

The product will use intelligent, self-organising, sensor nodes, which can adapt and prioritise the system around the current health of the aircraft.  This will focus on acquisition and data processing, to identify where anomalies exist, as well as tuning data rates, and featuring extraction algorithms; to significantly enhance the effectiveness and reliability of health monitoring techniques.

The other industrial partner, XMOS Ltd. – a semi-conductor design company – will provide multi-core micro-controller technologies for high-speed, low-power local sensor computing and real-time inter‑sensor communication technologies.  This builds on their unique xCORE technology, which delivers scalable, parallel multi-tasking computing with a very low power requirement.

The University of Bristol will provide architectural design and development of the Operating System, allowing computer processing power to be shared across the distributed microcontroller sensor network. 

Energy harvesting is the focus of the project for the Queen Mary University of London.  In hard-to-reach areas, such as above the rotor head, wires are difficult to use to connect the sensors between the rotating part of the rotor and the slipring.  The technology will harvest energy from vibrations, and use wireless energy transfer to charge a battery to power the sensors.

Economic impact

One of the main economic benefits of the system is the reduction in maintenance costs to the operator.  Routine checks must be made on the aircraft for every 25 to 50 hours of flight time, which may include manual inspections, installation of portable equipment, and additional maintenance hours.  Having the equipment on board and constantly monitoring the health of the components will significantly reduce these operators’ costs and improve the availability of the aircraft by reducing the time required to maintain the aircraft and increasing the time between maintenance instances.

It is estimated that every hour of flight costs in the region of £1,500-£2,000, (depending on the size of the aircraft).  Integrated health monitoring would therefore be an attractive technology for the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), whose product would become more marketable and cost-effective for operators if health monitoring were to be installed at the point of manufacture.

The technology spillover is also a valuable economic impact – distributed sensing could be exploited in the energy and utility market for monitoring rotating machines generating electricity.  Applications could also be found in the transport industry, especially in the automotive and rail sectors.  A further possibility is a fixed-wing market, a route that may be accessed through application onto Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), where the technology also has potential relevance for on-board monitoring and benefiting from the miniaturisation and de-centralisation of these types of systems.

The benefits that UK funding has had on Helitune and the development of these technologies are demonstrated in the company has doubled its workforce to around 45 engineers over the past 5 years.  Having previously been engaged in several UK projects, including a National Aerospace Technology Programme (NATEP) project, many successful working relationships have been allowed to flourish.

Peter Morrish, Technology Manager at Helitune, said:

The importance of being involved in these collaborative projects is crucial for smaller companies and offers the invaluable experience of working directly with the OEMs, who ultimately exploit the final commercial product.  These programmes offer the security and opportunity for SME companies to plan 6-7 years in advance, whilst developing key relationships, to maximise our R&D output.

The combined technologies will provide a miniaturised, low-cost, low installation impact, flexible solution, reducing barriers to entry and substantiating the business case for health monitoring on helicopters of all sizes.  Adoption and integration of the new technologies by OEMs will result in various benefits: 

  • Higher levels of availability (reduction in unscheduled maintenance);
  • Monitoring of previously unreachable components;
  • Enhanced asset management, leading to maintenance cost savings;
  • Realisation of aircraft component life extension.

Next steps

The next step once the project reaches its conclusion, upon advancing the technology to around TRL 5 by 2017, will be to test the product on a flying demonstrator.  Discussions have already begun with several helicopter OEMs and operators, with an initial flight trial expected to be pursued in 2017.

Additionally, the consortium will investigate the future exploitation of its technology to other areas, including fixed-wing aircraft and UAVs, and then new markets such as industrial power and renewables.  Other companies within the Group, including PROSIG (automotive), Beran Instruments (industrial – energy plants), and SEI (fixed wing) are all interested in maximising the outputs in these sectors.

Case study courtesy of Aerospace Technology Institute (2017)