Ordinarily, you don’t want drones going anywhere near planes.
A small flying machine colliding with a large flying machine — one with people on board — almost certainly isn’t going to end well, which is why strict flying bans are in place around airports for quadcopters and other remotely controlled aerial devices.
So why is Airbus happily flying drones right up close to its own aircraft?
It’s actually to make planes safer, as the aerospace giant is using the machines to help with visual checks of aircraft, “considerably reducing aircraft downtime and improving the quality of inspection reports,” Airbus says.
The company unveiled its Advanced Inspection Drone this week in Florida at the MRO Americas exposition, a gathering of aviation maintenance professionals from around the world.
Designed for use inside a hangar away from the elements, the custom-built quadcopter uses a laser-based obstacle detection and anti-collision system to ensure it never gets too close to the parked plane. Following a predefined inspection path, the machine flies around the aircraft, all the time capturing high-resolution images of its exterior.
The data is sent wirelessly to a tablet, allowing the operator to review it in real-time. For a more detailed look, the images are transferred to a desktop inspection station, where a technician uses dedicated software capable of detecting any visual surface damage by comparing the real-world images against the aircraft’s 3D structural model.
“The new inspection process will take only three hours, including 30 minutes of image capture by the drone, and will improve operator safety,” the company said. “By contrast, traditional aircraft visual inspection is performed from the ground or using a telescopic platform, in particular for the upper parts of the aircraft, a process which could typically last up to one day.”
So as you can see, using drones in this way drastically reduces the inspection time, enabling the airplane to return to service more quickly while at the same time offering enhancements to the overall quality of the inspection reports.
Airbus says its new drone platform is part of its “Hangar of the Future” initiative that brings together innovative technologies such as drones and collaborative robots for aircraft inspection.
The aerospace company says it’s already demonstrated its Advanced Inspection Drone to several airlines, many of which have expressed an interest in incorporating it into their own aircraft maintenance procedures. The kit will be available for use in the final quarter of this year.
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