Given how few airline accidents have occurred over the past 20 years, people rarely give a second thought to whether or not the aircraft they are boarding is mechanically reliable. If they did look into the matter, they would likely be surprised to see how much work goes into making sure the aircraft is in working order. Maintenance of an airliner is both time and manpower intensive, and results in each aircraft being unavailable for revenue generation for an extended period of time. As a result, any technology that can reduce either the amount of personnel or the amount of time needed to inspect an aircraft can have a big impact on the bottom line.
By way of example, an “A Check” inspection is performed on aircraft roughly every 400-600 flight hours or 200–300 takeoffs and landings, takes between 50 and 70 man-hours, and takes the plane out of service for a minimum of 10 hours. The more thorough “B Check” is performed every 6-8 months, requires 160-180 man-hours, and can take 1-3 days.
Even before the first Section 333 Exemptions were granted, people were experimenting with the idea of using unmanned aircraft to speed up inspections. Since most work of this type occurs in a large hangar, it is outside the National Airspace System, providing more flexibility and freedom in performing this work.
Airbus, which is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of commercial aircraft, has announced it will be introducing a new unmanned aircraft designed from the ground up to inspect aircraft, called the Airbus Advanced Inspection Drone. The UAS comes with software that has a custom autonomous flight path for each aircraft it inspects to ensure uniform coverage. The drone is equipped with an optical camera as well as a laser based collision avoidance system to allow it to fly in close proximity to the aircraft and to avoid the hazards that come from indoor flight.
After the flight, the system’s software compares the images captured to the 3D model of the aircraft, and automatically generates a report of anomalies. According to Airbus, use of the system will cut the amount of time needed to complete a full inspection of the top of the aircraft from one day to approximately 30 minutes. Airbus expects the European Aviation Safety Agency to authorize the use of the system as an alternate means to complete the general visual inspection process by mid-year.
While traditional aviation stakeholders have been understandably concerned over the hazards of unmanned aircraft, small UAS are also starting to provide substantial benefits, from infrastructure and runway inspections at airports to accident investigations, to aircraft inspections. Systems like this can be a game changer for maintenance repair and overhaul service providers or airlines, by cutting costs and getting aircraft back into service faster.