Rise Of The Machines

Despite all the advances in airframe, avionic and engine technology, maintenance remains a labour-intensive business.

As it’s been cheaper for foreign mechanics to gets their hands dirty than those in the West, many carriers from Europe and the US have outsourced their aftermarket work to foreign climes.

Yet this trend is slowing dramatically as labour rates in places like China catch up, so new ways of keeping competitive have to be found. For some types of MRO work, one solution will be automation.

EasyJet, for instance, is currently trialling drone systems that could cut the time of an aircraft exterior inspection from more than five hours to less than 30 minutes.

Developed by Blue Bear Systems Research and Createc, the RISER drone autonomously scans the majority of an airframe using an HD camera for visual inspection, and laser scanners to navigate inside the hangar. The budget airline wants RISER operational at 10 of its bases by April 2016.

However, the system is only in its first iteration, and a chunk of the time saved on the physical inspection – which engineers usually carry out with cherry pickers and gantries – is then lost by the need for someone to review the drone’s images.

Automated damage recognition would drastically speed up that process, but such technology is not quite robust enough to function reliably on a hovering platform.

In more controlled environments, however, automated recognition has already been trialled successfully, notably in Lufthansa Technik’s AutoInspect research project.

This used white-light interferometry for crack detection on combustors, instead of the traditional manual method of using dye penetrants.

Lufthansa Technik then went a step further and fed the huge volumes of AutoInspect data into the machines of its AutoRep project.

These then generated their own repair programs to repair any cracks using robotic milling and laser powder deposition welding systems.

Of course, many tasks in the hangar remain better suited to human creativity and flexibility, but in the near future several of the most routine and mundane may be overtaken by robots.

The forthcoming ATE&M and Engine Yearbook 2016 both feature in-depth articles about the future of automated repair and inspection.

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