Interest in drones for aircraft inspections and tests of this approach began several years ago. But getting the technology and all the surrounding procedures exactly right has taken time.
A number of airlines and MROs are now using or testing Donecle drones for inspection. Some companies have announced these projects, for instance AFI-KLM, Avianca, Airbus and El Al Israel Airlines, while others have remained mum. “Our current clients are essentially in Europe and North America,” explains Donecle CEO & Co-Founder Josselin Bequet. “We also have several projects underway on military aircraft.”
Donecle drones are primarily used for general visual inspections of aircraft exteriors, typically conducted inside maintenance hangars during routine A to C checks or overnight inspections. Donecle wants to expand this scope to unscheduled maintenance tasks such as post-lightning and hail damage inspections done outside hangars on the ramp.
The Donecle CEO sees three main advantages to his approach. The first is speed. Drone inspection of a typical narrowbody takes under an hour, compared with five to six hours for a manual inspection. And a drone can cover multiple applications, for example general visual inspections, paint inspections and regulatory marking checks, with a single set of images instead of multiple job cards and inspectors as with manual methods.
Second, drones can access aircraft upper surfaces for visual checks easily, without docks, cherry-pickers and other equipment to inspect fuselage crowns or tail planes. Drones reduce inspector workload by automating image analysis, and inspectors can automatically detect, annotate and reposition damages and missing on inspection reports.
Finally, drone inspections yield a complete snapshot of the aircraft at a specific moment in time, upload snapshot and data to the cloud and thus enable operators, lessors and MROs to archive results from one inspection to another.
But drones must be stable enough to yield precise images. So Donecle developed laser positioning with onboard sensors ‘seeing’ the environment and positioning the drone relative to the aircraft with an accuracy down to centimeters. This in turn yields several benefits: full drone automation with no separate pilot; highly repeatable inspections; and precisely positioned images.
And for safety, Donecle builds in hardware redundancy, software fail-safes and obstacle detection.
Distinctively, Bequet says Donecle offers an integrated package combining drone, automated navigation, image analysis and aggregated data on a secure cloud platform. “We have not seen other players providing that level of end-to-end integration.”