LATAM slashes aircraft inspection costs and time with drones

aircraft inspection drones

South American airline group LATAM is among the growing ranks of global carriers benefitting from the reduced costs and time required to perform aircraft inspections with automated drones rather than traditional manual methods.

LATAM communicated updates on its use of drones in its aircraft inspection and maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) systems earlier this month. The airline said continued testing of the aerial technique is allowing it to be expanded within the company’s network.

Significantly, LATAM said flight of tech-packed automated UAVs had cut the time of performing inspection on its aircraft from eight hours to just 40 minutes.

That result wasn’t obtained overnight. LATAM initially began trialing drones for aircraft inspection in late 2019, partnering with specialized French UAV services group Donecle to oversee the process. As the application demonstrated its value in LATAM’s main service center in São Carlos, Brazil, the carrier continued testing ways to enhance it and broaden its use. As a result, this month LATAM said will soon introduce the safety procedure in its MRO unit in Santiago, Chile.

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The method involves an automated drone flying patterns around LATAM aircraft under inspection, taking up to 2,000 high-resolution images of the plane that are fed into computers. Those use artificial intelligence programs to completely analyze the fuselage, wings, engine nacelles, tail, and lower surface for potential damage or weaknesses, and recommend any repairs needed.

“At LATAM we see technology as an opportunity to improve and optimize our aircraft maintenance and inspection processes,” said Marcos Melchiori, senior MRO manager at LATAM’s São Carlos center. “That is why we are constantly looking for new tools that allow us to establish more efficient and precise processes, always having the safety of our passengers and collaborators as a priority.” 

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LATAM is one of the growing number of international airlines turning to drones for inspections, with Korean Air, Austrian, KLM, and others similarly looking to replace painstaking manual methods involving visual checks from technicians on elevated platforms. The time and money saved using automated UAVs may be a driver of continued MRO changes.

In contrast to decades of recent outsourcing of non-core passenger and cargo transportation activities, some airlines have recently begun reincorporating MRO into their operations. Brazilian carrier Azul, for example, says it has economized about $40 million in the past two years by overseeing and repairing its planes on its own. 

With drones capable of offering faster, cheaper, and reliable airplane inspection services, it’s likely more airlines may soon follow suit – along with MRO specialists trying to retain clients.

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