With all the negative press about drones, it’s hard sometimes to even find out about some of the exciting possibilities that drone technology offers, especially in the maintenance arena. A lot of that negativity, unfortunately, is spurred on by the FAA that seems to publicly focus only on the potential negative safety impacts of drones and much less on the very real potential safety benefits. Whatever positive news does make it through the anti-drone media usually involves operational use of drones – for example, drones performing high-risk inspections previously performed by helicopters like powerline or pipeline inspections. Or drones used to assess impacts of natural or manmade disasters. Or search and rescue missions. But little breaks through the mainstream media on advances being made in maintenance uses for drones.
But research is also being done on the use of drones for maintenance. And some of that research has exciting possibilities, including the possibility of improving aviation safety. One company that seems to be leading the pack in this arena is UK-based EasyJet. EasyJet – a low cost airline flying mostly Airbus A319 aircraft to dozens of locations in and around Europe – has been researching the use of drones to perform maintenance inspections since 2014. One of the areas that EasyJet is focusing on is using drones equipped with high definition cameras and lasers to scan aircraft fuselages for damage, especially after lightning or bird strikes. These cameras can reveal the condition of the aircraft in great detail. And safer for the mechanic doing the work. According to a BBC report, EasyJet’s head of engineering believes it’s safer to “have drones working at height than humans having to go up on a rig.” Or worse, doing the inspections standing on a too-short ladder, as I’ve seen – and done myself – far too many times
Today when we have a reported lightning strike a detailed visual inspection of the fuselage is required. Usually that requires the aircraft to be taken to a hangar or remote area so that appropriate lifting equipment can be utilized to inspect the crown and tail of the aircraft. Drones will not only make the work easier but also allow it to be done without the need for lifting equipment, which itself increases the potential for ground damage to the aircraft. So while drones right now are being used by EasyJet in the hangar, the goal is eventually to receive permission to do the inspections outdoors.
Not only is it potentially safer to have drones do some of these inspections than mechanics but very likely drone inspections could be more thorough. Detailed fuselage inspections are tedious work and staying focused is a challenge under the best of circumstances. And, as many of us who investigate maintenance-related accidents know, the harder it is to reach an area to perform an inspection or to do maintenance the more likely that the area will be missed or the maintenance performed less than optimally.
For those concerned about jobs lost to technology, I don’t see that as an issue with the growing mechanic shortage.