Drones may be causing a headache for airports and airlines around the world, but a European carrier has found a way to embrace the technology for the good of its fleet.
Austrian Airlines is using an autonomous drone developed by French startup Donecle to inspect the exterior of its Airbus planes for structural issues and paint damage.
A trial using the technology will continue until the end of the year, though if successful it could become a regular feature of the airline’s inspection process.
According to Austrian Airlines, the system helps to reduce the workload for its technicians, and also cuts the inspection time from between four and ten hours to less than two, enabling the airline to return its planes to the skies more quickly.
The work takes place inside a hangar at Austrian Airlines’ base in Vienna and involves the quadcopter flying autonomously around the aircraft, snapping high-resolution images as it goes.
Once the hour-long operation is complete, the custom software spends another hour analyzing the gathered data, automatically flagging up anything that may need a closer look.
Technicians can use a tablet to examine the images of the aircraft in detail and, if necessary, create a report for the maintenance team to follow up.
Austrian Airlines is keen to point out that while the drone does the preparatory work, the final assessment regarding any maintenance issues is made by certified aircraft personnel.
“At Austrian Airlines, we are constantly looking for solutions to optimize our processes,” Bernhard Schreckensperger, an avionics engineer at the airline, said in a video. “We are currently testing various operational scenarios for an autonomous flying drone. These include lightning strike inspections, checks for the presence of [airline] stickers, checks of the aircraft’s paint finish, as well as the detection of structural damage.”
The drone inspections are being carried out on 36 Airbus A320 aircraft operated by the Austrian carrier, with plans to expand the work to its other aircraft models that include 17 Embraer planes.
Austrian Airlines isn’t the first carrier to utilize drone technology for such work, with U.K.-based easyJet having experimented with a similar system several years ago. Airbus, too, recently unveiled a drone system as part of its “Hangar of the Future” initiative aimed at bringing together innovative technologies and collaborative robots for aircraft inspection.