Why it matters: Austrian Airlines, a subsidiary of Lufthansa, has been experimenting with UAVs for structural inspection of its Airbus planes. Supervised by an aircraft technician, these drones are said to greatly reduce the inspection time to less than 2 hours per aircraft as opposed to performing manual checks that usually take between 4-10 hours.
Austrian Airlines has been looking to speed up its aircraft maintenance operations by deploying autonomous drones made by a French start-up Donecle. If the new technology works out as intended, these drones would then permanently join the airlines' engineering teams in the future.
The UAVs have been helping technicians in the inspection of paint and structural damage for a fleet of 36 Airbus A320 family aircraft operated by the carrier. A drone flies around an aircraft's exterior autonomously by using patented laser technology and takes a high-resolution image every second. It then uses these images to work with accompanying software and automatically identifies paint and structural damage (like a problem with adhesive lettering or graphics).
The supervising technician, who has undergone detailed training on drone operation, can further examine the damage on a 'tablet' (that's a Surface Book above so it does qualify) and make a final decision on the repair. As a result, an aircraft inspection is done within 2 hours instead of the 4-10 hours which a manual check would've taken.
"Shorter duration of the checks […] enables quicker availability of the aircraft in daily flight operations," said Alexis von Hoensbroech, CEO Austrian Airlines, who further said that 17 Embraer E195 aircraft will be added in September to make use of this new technology.
"Our aspiration at Austrian Technical Operations is always to be at the cutting-edge of technology. Innovative systems such as the drones provide us with the perfect support as we expand our stability in flight operations further, so preventing flight cancellations," said Micheal Kaye, VP Austrian Airlines Technical Operations.
This technology will also enable the airline to monitor technical inspections conducted worldwide with partner companies, allowing it to "get a precise picture of paint jobs being done at another location while still sitting in Vienna."
With this program, Austrian Airlines joins British carrier EasyJet and aircraft manufacturer Airbus in using technologies that involve UAVs for aircraft inspection.