It seems that the robotic age has eventually arrived, certainly in the aircraft industry where drones are likely going to be used for repairs and maintenance, and 3D printing utilized to quickly replace worn non-critical parts.
This isn’t surprising, since original equipment manufacturers (OMEs) are constantly doing everything they can to make products last as long as possible in service while being more reliable. OMEs also focus on the need for their equipment to be easier to maintain.
Major maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) services are also focusing on innovation, particularly for smaller companies that either supply or support aircraft maintenance in various parts of the world.
So what can drones do to help the airline industry?
The Value of Drones for Aircraft MRO
A number of airlines have found that unmanned aerial vehicle (UAVs) – more commonly known as drones – can help mitigate costs and reduce the time spent on maintenance, repair and overhaul of aircraft.
For instance, drones can be used for:
- Visual inspection of aircraft that have, or may have been damaged by lightning. Manual inspection takes between four and six hours while UAVs can get the job done in half an hour.
- Scheduled maintenance of fuselages and other parts that might require minor repairs. While the drones won’t actually do the maintenance work, they might be used to find problem areas and plan repairs that are needed.
- Delivery of spare parts, which could help cut down on time spent by MRO personnel in the hangar, ultimately resulting in much more efficient repair work.
- The automation of defect detection that would enable engineers to pinpoint potential damage that could be inspected visually at a later stage. If this was possible, UAV images could be compared with existing digital images of defects that have previously been found.
The innovative low-cost UK airline EasyJet is said to be experimenting with drones to inspect the fuselages of their planes that may or have been damaged by lightning strikes. While passengers may not realize the threat of lightening, EasyJet has openly admitted that one of their aircraft gets struck nearly every day of the year. With a drone helping to identify damage, repairs will likely be quicker and more effective.
Fuselages may also be inspected by 3D scanners for hail damage, as Air France Industries (AFI) and KLM’s maintenance division E&M do using a 3D scanner over 1202m on a Boeing 777. They are able to deliver a 3D image to a laptop so that mechanics can inspect the image and then report the damage to their engineers. This process also takes less than an hour compared to the normal four to five hours that manual scanning would involve. Better still, the process is said to be considerably more accurate.
When it comes to scheduled maintenance, Blue Bear Systems, a company committed to researching and finding product-based solutions for UAV, has developed a system that helps engineers inspects fuselages that incorporate riser drones and onboard sensors that would be able to manage databases. This could mean that engineers would be able to assess inspection results quickly and effectively.
SITA, the Swiss multinational information technology company that provides IT and telecommunication services to the global air transport industry is in the process of obtaining digital images to create a useful library that can be catalogued and used help automate defect detection.
The Value of 3D Printing for Aircraft MRO
Taking a lead yet again, for more than a year, EasyJet has been testing their ability to test 3D printing of various cabin parts to speed up replacement processes and reduce storage of spares. According to their fleet asset transition manager of engineering, Mark Bunting, they have started off by looking at printing cabin parts like window blinds, tray tables, and arm rests – all of which need to be replaced quite frequently.
It just gets better and better. But why do they care?
A recent stat the airline released was that seven in every 1,000 of their departures is delayed by some kind of technical issue. If they can counter this one, they can save a huge amount of money. Passengers should not be unnecessarily bothered by this finding largely because the planes will likely be safer, and ultimately they will cost consumers less on every single level. Additionally, they should realize that other airlines probably have very similar stats.
If EasyJet cares, you can be sure that most of the other airlines operating today care too. And a whole lot of them are likely to be looking at the usefulness of drones maintaining and repairing their aircraft fleets.