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Inspecting planes on the appropriate schedule is a major part of keeping them in the air and avoiding unplanned downtime. Some airlines have investigated options for automating aircraft inspections. Planes undergo line maintenance checks before and after every trip, but there are more intensive, letter-grade inspections ranging from A-D. Automated visual inspections don’t replace humans, but they could boost overall efficiency.
The inspections vary according to the time they take to complete and how often planes must receive them. For example, line maintenance inspections only take about an hour. However, D checks require 30,000-50,000 hours of labour and occur in a four- to six-week time frame. Those only happen every six to 10 years. Even the less-intensive A checks could take days or weeks, depending on the availability of technicians and hangar space.
Inspection automation could relieve some of the workload burdens technicians face. It also brings other notable benefits.
Automated Visual Inspections Save Time and Labor Needs
Two of the primary reasons decision-makers opt to automate aircraft inspections is that the approach can save significant time while reducing the number of people required to perform a check. These automated inspections, which typically happen through drone imagery, task humans with analyzing the captured information.
Brazilian airline LATAM has begun using automated visual inspections, and the results are worth discussing. Besides allowing people to check planes after flights, this approach creates a digital archive of how an aircraft looks over time.
This new way of performing inspections reportedly finishes in 40 minutes which originally required two employees working for eight hours. A drone flies around the plane and takes about 2,000 images of the fuselage. It then takes another hour to do the technical analysis of the pictures, but that’s still far faster than the previous method.
People can create a digital archive of the plane through time, which is also a major advantage when automating aircraft inspections. It then becomes easy to compare current and previous versions of certain areas of the craft, checking to see if they’ve changed in unusual or undesirable ways. This is not the only way parts of the aircraft industry are digitizing.
Air France KLM developed an augmented reality (AR) system to train people learning to become aircraft maintenance technicians. It allowed students to engage with a 3D model of a plane. That provided them with better interactivity than textbook-based methods. It’s also possible to update the AR technology to reflect industry progress, giving it another advantage over traditional learning materials.
Automated Visual Inspections May Regularly Happen Outside Soon
People have already determined some of the best ways to inspect certain parts of planes with minimal hassles. For example, borescopes help find and mitigate potential failures. Technicians use them to examine aircraft components, such as engines, brakes and inside the wings. These tools provide visibility into hard-to-access areas without requiring significant disassembly.
Even once people figure out which ways work best for completing specific maintenance tasks, progress still happens. One recent example was when a drone inspected an Airbus A330 plane. This was the first time such a check happened outside a hangar at an active European airport. Similar pilot projects have occurred in front of hangars at some airports in the United States, but this was history-making in Europe.
A Netherlands-based company called Mainblades was behind this endeavour. A representative from the business explained why this achievement was so substantial by discussing how planes damaged by lightning or birds may need upkeep outside of previously made maintenance plans. In such cases, finding a hangar to rent is not always possible. Even if one is available, using it costs money.
This test occurred at a military airport in Woensdrecht, a municipality located in the southern Netherlands. A drone flew around the aircraft, taking pictures that captured far more detail than people could see with their eyes alone.
The images are also convenient to have when multiple parties want maintenance updates. For example, leasing companies, rather than airlines, are often entities that own commercial aircraft. Those businesses get involved when a plane goes from an airline to maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) provider and, finally, back to the lessor and lessee. Automated visual inspections could capture the data that keeps everyone in the loop as the aeroplane goes between those parties.
Drones Reduce Planes’ Overall Out-of-Service Time
The old saying “time is money” is especially applicable to the commercial airline industry. Depending on what causes a plane to go out of service and how long it will take to resolve the problem, such instances could be incredibly costly for affected airlines. Such matters could also damage an airline’s reputation, particularly if unplanned downtime causes flight cancellations or delays during some of the busiest times of the year.
Representatives at Korean Air have developed drone swarm technology that could dramatically reduce out-of-service instances. So far, people at the airline have only demonstrated the concept. However, the early results suggest it could pay off significantly.
Four drones usually carry out these inspections. However, if something goes wrong with one of them, the remaining ones can finish the job. It reportedly only takes the drones approximately four hours to check a plane, whereas humans need 10 for such inspections. That accelerated time frame gets aircraft flying again faster.
This system can also find objects measuring only 1 millimetre in size. Such a detection capability increases the chances people become aware of and fix issues quickly. Ultimately, planes might be out of service for unplanned reasons less often during their life spans because people notice and attend to problems before they become catastrophic. Moreover, it’s helpful that the inspection data goes to the cloud, enabling authorized persons to view it anywhere and anytime over an internet connection.
The drones used in this concept also have safety features to prevent them from leaving a predefined area or failing to stay in formation. People who worked on this project want to improve those safety features and the user interfaces before bringing these drones into widespread use. Even so, they anticipate an official deployment happening sometime in 2022.
Automating Aircraft Inspections Is Worth Consideration
It’s still not a widespread practice for people to proceed with automating aircraft inspections. However, even the examples here, which are in the early stages, show plenty of promise. As utilization becomes more common, people may discover that automated visual inspections have some shortcomings. However, those revelations should help make future usage attempts even more successful.