Aircraft are regularly inspected for a lot of reasons. Pilots do a walk-around before each flight, and when the plane is having maintenance done a much more detailed inspection is often made. Inspections can discover problems on the surface of the plane, like bird damage, pits, or cracks. It can also discover issues not immediately visible with scanning. Doing a complete inspection takes many hours and can be a bit dangerous, as inspectors must use support to see on the top of the fuselage or bend over to see lower parts of the aircraft. This a labor and time intensive activity.
The world is changing, as we know. While parents may be nervous about their kids using ChatGPT, some smart AI-focused brains have put their attention to the aircraft inspection problem. The result is now a smart drone, that can fly all around the airplane, high and low, in a fraction of the time it takes people to look. It can inspect and store the exact digitization of the aircraft, providing reports on what it finds both as absolute and compared with its last scan. This automated inspection is what every airline will be using before long:
A Better Solution
Aircraft inspections today are generally performed by trained mechanics, who know what to look for and can diagnose the severity of issues found. Because of the size of most modern commercial airplanes, usually several people work at the same time, and scaffolding or upper bridges in a hangar allow views of the top of the fuselage and wings. Sophisticated scanning techniques are used to identify cracks or fissures that aren’t visible. This is an important process that is part of an overall safety program.
The advantages of automating this work are obvious. First, a set of cameras can do better than human eyes to detect issues. I have a car that will parallel park itself, and the first few times using this feature makes for nervous events. But then you realize that the car’s many eyes, placed all around the vehicle, are much better the than your own two eyes and so while it looks like you may hit the car in front of you, your car is actually well positioned. In the same way, a properly programmed set of cameras can see everything inspectors need to see, and more.
Further, the speed with which the drone can work, and the independence with which it can fly, makes the inspection process happen much more quickly. No bridges, scaffolds, or risk of physical danger in the process. Just a complete scan that takes a lot less time and is much more accurate.
More Preventative, Regular Checks
The advantage of this approach can be extended further. By creating a digital image of the aircraft, this image can evolve over time with each scan and the AI can both detect and diagnose issues that arrive. This idea is known as digital twin technology, and the inspection process can become more proactive using this idea.
Imagine an inspection drone at every gate of a hub, like Delta Airlines runs in Atlanta. Every time a plane pulls up to a gate, a lot of activity occurs: bags are removed and loaded, people deplane and board, the plane is fueled and catered for the next flight, etc. During this time, the drone could silently create a new digitization of this aircraft and add it to the knowledge base from all other images of that same aircraft. If an airline was updating this image every flight, or most flights, the data learned would be helpful to manage the fleet and find problems before they become safety issues. The options created from this technology are limitless.
Helps To Pay Pilots More
Airlines are paying more for pilots for a number of reasons. The 1,500 rule, imposed after a commuter airline crash in 2009, has made it much more expensive to become a pilot and this has not been adopted any where else in the world. From young ages, a wider group of teens need to believe they can become pilots since most today are white and male, and we should work to help them on this journey. Big new contracts at American, Delta, and United suggest that pilot costs will rise to all-time highs.
Any airline thinking that the only reaction to this is to raise ticket prices will be dealt a rude awakening by the marketplace. Fares cannot rise enough to cover these, and other cost increases. Airlines must address this issue on the cost side, too. One key way to make this happen is to find ways to do all non-pilot activities more efficiently. The savings from using this new drone technology will make the process not only less expensive, but more accurate too. It is a no-brainer for wide scale adoption.
Biggest Threats Are Contracts And Inertia
No change like this will happen overnight, of course. Initially, this approach may seem threatening to some organizations, and adoption will be slow or not happen for a while. Further, there may be language in some existing labor contracts that make it difficult to convert this work to an automated solution. USAirways, for many years, had trained mechanics marshaling aircraft into the gates while most other airlines had trained people, but not mechanics, do this work. USAirways was paying over $75 per hour for work being done for about $35 per hour everywhere else, because their labor contract required it.
Despite these expected road blocks, the idea of automated aircraft inspections makes too much sense to not become commonplace. Costs saved, and safety improved is a winning combination, and the advantages from all the data gathered and analyzed promises even more value as the processes continue to learn. This is an exciting opportunity for an industry that needs a few wins!