While it’s important to check out recently flown airplanes for any signs of damages or defects, aircraft inspection is a process riddled with many challenges. The aviation industry wants to modernize this system with smart, automatic drones. And in Europe, one company has achieved a major milestone by completing a fully automated outdoor airport drone inspection of a commercial aircraft at an active airfield.
Based in the Netherlands, Mainblades is a drone service provider that specializes in automated aircraft inspections. Earlier this week, they created European aviation history by using a DJI Matrice 300 RTK drone to autonomously inspect an Airbus A330 plane outside a hangar.
Typically, airports allow airplane drone inspections to be conducted only inside the hangar. Though pilot projects in front of hangars have been conducted in the United States, in Europe, this has never been allowed at an active airport.
Now, hangar space is expensive to rent and not always available for aircraft operators. This is especially true when unscheduled maintenance is required due to lightning strikes or other incidents. As Dejan Borota, cofounder and director of Mainblades, explains:
If an aircraft lands and it is damaged on the way, for example by lightning or birds, it must now first go to a closed location such as a hangar. That way you lose a lot of time. Besides this, hangar space is expensive to rent and not always available. And all that while a drone inspection can also take place in the open air.
So, to prove that outdoor inspections with drones could be conducted safely and efficiently, the Mainblades team landed at an active military airport in Woensdrecht on Tuesday. There, aircraft owner Truenoord made an Airbus A330 available for visual inspection by the DJI M300 RTK drone.
The drone took off for the job, looking for damages on the aircraft surface and taking high-res pictures that would show a lot more detail than that can be seen with the naked eye.
Why airplane drone inspection makes sense
Barota says using drones for aircraft inspections is beneficial not just for the aircraft owner but also for a lot of different parties in the aviation industry.
The first is the airline that has its operational fleet. They want to inspect the aircraft in the minimum possible time to optimize fleet availability. Next, you have the independent maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) organization that has tied up with the airline. They want to make sure the reporting interface and outputs are as consistent as possible. And then, there are aircraft lessors. Says Barota:
Approximately half of the world’s fleet of aircraft is actually not owned by the airlines themselves, but owned by leasing companies. And these leasing companies are involved when an aircraft has to go from an airline to an MRO, back to the lessor. At all moments they want to have an optimal picture of the status of the aircraft. So, they’re interested in ultimate inspection and having a complete report of these inspections.
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