It was about five years ago that drones were first suggested for aircraft inspections, and trials soon began testing this approach. Yet none of the drone techniques have actually been certified and put into daily operations.
That may change with the latest test by AAR of Donecle drones at AAR’s Miami MRO facility. The drones will conduct end-to-end visual inspections of Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s in less than an hour.
Laser positioning is used to position the drones, which are programmed to detect structural damage and assess paint quality, markings and signs of lightning strikes. One complete drone scan thus covers several maintenance tasks, and time and labor costs are saved.
But this is still a test. AAR will also perform manual inspections to check the drone’s work and confirm its accuracy for what is hoped to be an eventual FAA certification.
AAR chose Donecle because it liked the vendor’s software and hardware, and Donecle had experience with the aircraft types AAR frequently supports, a spokesperson says. Nevertheless, “we are actively talking to several other providers and will continue to do so, as this is a very new and emerging space.”
The parallel manual inspections are being done mot only to meet regulatory hurdles but also to compare manual and drone methods side by side to see which tasks each is best suited for before scaling up the technique.
Some other drone tests have ended, while other are ongoing. For example, Qantas did a couple of tests with drones but did not continue them. But Avianca is still testing drone inspections, in cooperation with Airbus, in its MRO facility in Rionegro, Colombia, according to Engineering Director Adolfo Carvajal. “We have already tested four aircraft with Airbus and we continue doing some inspections on other aircraft,” Carvajal says.
The Latin MRO is still estimating the benefits of drone inspections but is sure they can optimize an inspector’s time by supporting more activities simultaneously. Carvajal says the major hurdles to drone use include battery time, changing maintenance culture and certification. “We are working with Airbus to secure certification with all authorities”
Like AAR, Avianca is using Donecle drones. “To my knowledge there are only a few other companies working on this application, but from what I have heard they all are still in an experimentation phase,” says Donecle Marketing VP Helene Druet. “None of them have drones actually being used by customers, and as far as I am aware of, there has been no announcement of another inspection drone company selling its solution to an airline or a MRO.”
One challenge in drone inspections is ensuring drones are stable enough to yield precise images. Donecle developed laser positioning with onboard sensors to sense the drone’s environment and position it with an accuracy down to centimeters. The drone thus does not need a separate pilot. And Donecle offers an integrated package combining drone, automated navigation, image analysis and aggregated data on a secure cloud platform.