media release

Research taps AI to develop virtual efficiencies for industry

December 16, 2020

Aircraft maintenance crews could soon be checking their engines in a virtual world, given new research underway by Simon Fraser University and National Research Council of Canada (NRC) collaborators.

Researchers are using virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to enable crews to ‘walk’ around a virtual airplane engine and assess its flight performance remotely, using simulation and sensors added to real aircraft engines.

Eying benefits to Canada’s aerospace industry and beyond, SFU professor Wolfgang Stuerzlinger and the NRC’s Digital Technologies Group are collaborating on the research, which simulates interaction with real-world objects that are augmented with Internet of Things (IoT) technology.

To underscore the value of such collaborative research, SFU and the NRC are partnering to establish a West Coast collaboration, to increase capacity in AI and data science research and training in Canada.

The partnership further strengthens SFU’s AI and data capabilities and builds on a history of collaboration with the NRC. Their shared commitment to data-driven research will bring together researchers, governments, industries and communities to deliver innovations across many sectors in Canada. 


Stuerzlinger’s collaboration with the NRC targets efficiencies for aircraft maintenance crews using a virtual 3D engine created by the NRC team that ‘twins’ a real one. 

A series of sensors can be read directly from the engine parts of a physical craft. Working with Unity 3D software and the NRC AI model, researchers are fine-tuning precision inspection of individual engine parts in the virtual space.

Further testing will allow researchers to determine how crews might not only visualize but also interact with the model in the VR space.

“Our objective is to enable access to data by having technicians interact with the digital ‘twin’ of an object and related Internet of Things (IoT) data,” says Stuerzlinger, a professor in SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT) in Surrey. 

“Enabling complex objects with IoT sensors can allow the remote monitoring of the performance and health of those objects.” 

While the team is currently focused on aircraft engine maintenance, there are broader applications in more general human-computer interaction and in other industries, such as manufacturing and construction. The research will also examine how to best support technicians and trainees who work with IoT-enabled devices.

As collaborators, SFU and the NRC are empowering partners to solve critical problems for Canadian society through a focus on research excellence, the training of highly qualified personnel, and nation-wide capacity building in the AI and data science fields.

“SFU shares a common vision with the National Research Council of Canada to use big data innovations to benefit society,” says Fred Popowich, scientific director of SFU’s Big Data Initiative. “This partnership builds on SFU’s leadership in artificial intelligence and big data and I look forward to the many opportunities that lie ahead.” 

Carolyn Watters, the NRC’s chief digital research officer, says: “The NRC has a long track record of collaborations that develop expertise, amplify the impacts of science and engineering, and leverage funding to support research excellence. We are excited to partner with SFU to further develop AI research and training that will generate new knowledge with the potential to transform every sector and industry in Canada.”

The NRC is Canada’s largest federal research and development organization. Its focus is to partner with Canadian industry to take research discoveries from the lab to the marketplace, where the public can experience the benefits. This market-driven focus delivers innovation faster, enhances people's lives and addresses some of the world's most pressing problems, including the current challenges associated with COVID-19. 


WOLFGANG STUERZLINGER, professor, School of Interactive Arts & Technology


MELISSA SHAW, SFU Communications & Marketing 
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Simon Fraser University 
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