Emerging technologies in aircraft maintenance: Robots and drones

Emerging technologies in aircraft maintenance: Robots and drones

By Carolina Martin Berardi

Several aerospace companies are investing in the development of automated solutions to not only improve the ability to detect problems on aircraft surfaces but even to be able to repair them on the fly. These projects aim to reduce inspection times from hours to minutes, as the inspection of such large systems as planes is typically complex and requires great effort. These solutions have the potential to reduce costs and lead to more efficient maintenance schedules that imply increased safety for aircraft. 

According to CompInnova, “aircraft maintenance expenditure usually represents 20% of the overall operating cost and inefficient and ineffective inspection procedures can destroy the ability to plan, schedule, and reduce labor productivity by 50% or more. The result of an undetected flaw due to inefficient inspection or improper repair may lead to its catastrophic failure and eventually to life and aircraft loss.”

WALL.E becomes reality for the maintenance of aircrafts:

On February 21, 2018, the Swiss company SR Technics, a provider of maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) services, announced its partnership with Invert Robotics to develop a new robotic solution that can improve aircraft maintenance inspections. 

The robot will have a high-resolution inspection camera that will allow it to check the status of the aircraft while transmitting these images to a remote-control center. The images will also be recorded in a database that will enable more detailed checks and comparisons of the condition of the aircraft over time. The company also hopes to be able to add new features such as ultrasound and thermographic testing that would enhance the quality of the inspections.

Source: SR Technics

At the same time, Cranfield University has developed and successfully trialed its own robot, named the Vortex Robot, to perform aircraft surface inspections. This small system can move around the sides and underbelly of planes by a mechanism of intense suction, helped by sensors that measure the levels of adhesion and its four motorized wheels. The inspections would be made initially through infrared thermographic sensors and then in more detail with ultrasound sensors. All inspections would be collected and then used to re-create a digitized version of the inspected aircraft. Then, with this information, the personnel would be able to find the damage and qualify it.  This system is expected to be launched in early 2020.

Future developments of the Vortex Robot foresee its autonomous version, which could also perform repair tasks by equipping it with a laser capable of removing damaged material and then being able to apply a patch to remedy the damage. In addition, the mechanical wheels could be replaced by suction mechanisms, which would reduce its power consumption.

The development of this new inspection system is part of the CompInnova Project

The CompInnova consortium consists of 5 partners, 4 Universities and 1 SME from 3 different countries. They constitute a broad representation of organizations involved in Materials and Chemistry Science including composites and aerospace alloys, Modelling, Robotics, Inspection Methods, Sensors, Signal processing, Software and Electronics. The proposed consortium brings together technological skills, industrial objectives, geographical representation, synergistic business interests and non-competitive positions, each with a specific role to play in the completion of the work and the exploitation of its results, without duplication of efforts or commercial conflicts.”

Inspection from the air:

The use of drones is something that is gradually becoming common in different activities not only for recreation but also for defense and commercial uses. In this last category, progress has also been made in the development and implementation of this technology to facilitate the inspection of aircraft for maintenance.

Last year, Airbus announced the launch of a new inspection technology. For this purpose, Airbus’s Advanced Inspection Drone will include a visual camera and a laser obstacle detector along with flight planning and inspection analysis software. This new system will reduce the inspection process, normally carried out with a telescopic platform, from 24 to 3 hours.

Airbus Advanced Inspection Drone 2. Source: Airbus

In May of this year Airbus also announced a partnership with the Spanish Air Force to further expand this technology in addition to adding maintenance inspection services based on augmented reality. The images taken by the flying devices will be displayed not only in tablets but also in augmented reality glasses, allowing the staff to easily identify problems on the planes and have a better view of them.

Conclusion:

There is still much to be done and developed in these new forms of inspection and repair of large aircraft, as both the robots and drones that were discussed here are still in development. In the future, they will surely present higher levels of automation and ability to detect and repair defects, as both functions are not yet fully accomplished by any of the presented technologies. This is still a green field in which not all aircraft companies are yet involved; but its future is promising and will surely be extended to other sectors such as the naval industry. Or perhaps in a few years each one of us will have a small robot on the roof of our homes capable of hanging Christmas decorations or repairing water leaks.

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