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Korean Air first carrier to use drone swarms for aircraft inspection

Advancements in drone technology over recent years have encouraged an increasing number of airlines to utilize the flying machines for aircraft safety inspections.

However, in what’s thought to be an industry first, Korean Air has started using a swarm of drones for visual inspections in a process that dramatically cuts the time it takes to complete such a task.

One of Korean Air's inspection drones.
A drone used by Korean Air for the inspection of its aircraft. Korean Air

“Whereas maintenance specialists previously had to perform a visual check of the aircraft fuselage from heights of up to 20 meters, drone inspections improve workplace safety and allow for increased accuracy and speed,” the carrier said in a release.

Korean Air has designed and built its own drone for the job. The machine, a quadcopter, is 39 inches (1 meter) across and weighs 12.1 pounds (5.5 kg).

During an inspection activity, which takes place inside an aircraft hangar, Korean Air uses four of the drones at the same time. Each one is equipped with high-tech cameras capable of identifying details as small as 0.04 inches (1 mm) in size.

The drones are powered by custom software that directs them to gather imagery from specific parts of the aircraft. If one or more of the drones fails during the mission, the remaining drones are programmed to take over and complete the work.

The carrier said that using four drones together enables its engineering team to reduce inspection time from 10 hours to just four.

“Korean Air shares inspection data through the cloud, enabling employees to easily check inspection results anywhere and anytime,” the carrier said. “The airline has also applied a collision avoidance system and geo-fencing to maintain safety distances from surrounding facilities and prevent break-aways from the mission area.”

Operators of the drone-based inspection procedure are working to increase the accuracy of the process through ongoing trials. If these go according to plan, Korean Air will aim to officially implement the swarm system sometime next year.

We first heard about airlines using drone technology for aircraft inspection in 2015 when European low-cost carrier easyJet revealed it was testing its own system. More recently, Austrian Airlines started using drones for the same kind of work.

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Trevor Mogg
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