Printed Headline: Autonomous Inspectors
Using drones for aircraft maintenance inspections is becoming less of a novel concept, but it is still in its early stages. Luftronix, a New Jersey-based drone and software company, is developing a system that seeks to change that.
CEO Klaus Sonnenleiter says, “If drones become more simple and easier to use with very little technical knowledge and preparation, then there is incentive to increase the frequency of inspection.” Hypothetically, drone-enabled inspections could self-initiate each time an aircraft lands.
It sounds straightforward enough, but developing the technology to achieve that is not. Luftronix has taken on the software and hardware complexities of making inspections by drone the standard, replacing the usual inspections done 80-90% visually over about 6 hr., with the other 10-20% using nondestructive testing. To replace the conventional visual inspection, the drone needs to have extremely accurate exact location recall and data input.
The software built by Luftronix is called Fused Flow, a system that achieves precision navigation by utilizing data from sensors attached to the drone. It draws on “optical flow,” the the way in which humans understand relative motion while moving around.
The software on the computer interface can control the drone, as can an android app. The program shows a model of the aircraft for inspection and allows the user to create the drone’s flightpath around the aircraft, simulate and then conduct the inspection.
Credit: Jen Deglmann/Inside MRO
The program can receive images from the drone in real time during the inspection, or the images can be downloaded once it is complete. Afterward, the user can review a composite image of the aircraft, mark it up to flag issues (such as a dent or scratch) and set the program to repeat the inspection zeroing in on areas of interest.
The Luftronix team builds and customizes the drones with specific inspection equipment, such as optical cameras and gyroscopes, to accurately identify particular locations. The company is adding sonar sensors to prevent collisions and enable safe landing in case the system fails. Dedicated distance sensors and thermal cameras will be added in the future.
At Luftronix’s Cape May center, aircraft inspection test drones are flown around a de Havilland Canada DHC-4 Caribou to demonstrate their capabilities. At left, an inspection test drone’s camera. Credit: Jen Deglmann/Inside MRO
But how much can the technology speed up the inspection process? There is a calculator to determine that.
The team built an “aircraft area scan-speed calculator” so potential customers can input their aircraft type and ideal camera resolution to see estimated inspection time measured in minutes.
Typically, inspections of commercial aircraft can take up to 6 hr. and cost $100,000. The Luftronix drone inspection, combined with the software to focus only on problem areas, can reduce the inspection time to 3 hr.
An inspection test drone’s camera. Credit: Jen Deglmann/Inside MRO
The team is developing a machine-learning algorithm to continue reducing that time. “If you give the inspectors a tool that automatically detects suspicious areas with a reasonably high degree of confidence, you can cut it to under an hour,” says Sonnenleiter.
Luftronix’s system initially will operate only inside the hangar but the company hopes to eventually provide outdoor inspection capabilities as well. It must receive FAA approval for outdoor as well as indoor flights. Luftronix already follows its own internal safety requirements, including security safeguards, communication with ongoing traffic and airport authority approval. FAA Part 107 requires unmanned aircraft system operators to ensure that aircraft and controls are fit for safe operation prior to any flight. FAA Advisory Circular 107-2 provides detailed information on preflight inspections and maintenance to help operators meet these requirements. Agency staff have visited Luftronix for a demonstration in Cape May, but the FAA does not have any contract or relationship with the company.
What sets Luftronix’s initiative apart from other drone inspection systems is the drone’s ability to fly autonomously. This means inspections can be done without a network connection and without the drone being “tethered” to the inspector.
Aircraft system data collected by the Luftronix drone flows through the drone’s flight-control unit. Credit: Luftronix
Luftronix is in talks with a number of global operators and hopes to secure five pilot customers willing to work on the system. “We’re looking for a handful of customers who are willing to do the hard work with us and improve the technology to the point where it fits their needs exactly,” says Sonnenleiter.