Drones are very much in the public consciousness at present. From large unmanned aerial vehicles being used for multi-million dollar military operations to smaller scale devices being available for around £200 ($290) for hobbyists to fly in their back gardens, they are becoming ubiquitous.
Yet despite the increased availability of drones, their use for aircraft maintenance operations divides opinion. While there's no doubt the use of drones for inspection tasks is now becoming a larger part of the conversation with many MROs and airlines, scepticism remains over whether drone-led maintenance will one day become as common in the hangar as a torque wrench.
The current MRO-Network.com poll, which runs until Sunday (June 12), reflects the contentious nature of the issue, with only a small majority believing the use of drones for maintenance checks will be a regular occurrence in the next five years.
But what is this scepticism born out of? Given some of the bad press associated with drones in recent times – think various regulators crackdowns and their use for dubious activities – the technology has suffered from an image problem as of late.
For MROs I’ve spoken with, the lack of a human element when carrying out something as crucial as aircraft inspection is cited as a major area of doubt.
Despite doubts associated with all new innovations, commercial aviation MRO has demonstrated a penchant for new technologies. In the Internet of Things (IoT) age, this has been demonstrated by the number of firms using tablets, mobile apps and wearable devices to harness data and turn it into useful business information.
But with the IoT age expected to pick up pace through the greater influx of connected devices working concurrently with the large swathes of data emanating everywhere from aircraft engines to components, the notion of connected, sensor-fitted drones being a common tool for maintenance would seem an inevitability.
Airlines like easyJet highly publicised their use of drones for maintenance on their A320 last year, while the likes of Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacfici and Lufthansa Technik have also trialled automated robotics in some form for inspections during that period.
With many trials and projects taking place, and seemingly at their formative stage, it isn’t inconceivable that the attitude towards drones for MRO work could change completely in as little as 2-3 years.
What works for one MRO and is demonstrated in the form of results such as reduced lead times could lead to others following suit.
The issue of drones in maintenance will be addressed as part of the Internet of Things feature in the next issue of Inside MRO.