Korean Air first carrier to use drone swarms for aircraft inspection

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Drone technology has advanced in recent years, encouraging a growing number of airlines to use the flying vehicles for aviation safety inspections.

Korean Air, in what is believed to be an industry first, has begun employing a swarm of drones for visual inspections, a method that drastically reduces the time it takes to conduct such a task.

“Whereas previously, maintenance personnel had to do a visual assessment of the aircraft fuselage from heights of up to 20 meters,” the airline said in a statement. “Drone inspections improve workplace safety and allow for increased accuracy and speed.”

For the job, Korean Air created and manufactured its own drone. The quadcopter measures 39 inches (1 meter) in length and weighs 12.1 pounds (5.5 kg).

Korean Air employs four drones simultaneously during an inspection activity that takes place within an aircraft hangar. Each one is outfitted with high-tech cameras that can detect details as fine as 0.04 inches (1 mm).

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The drones are controlled by special software that directs them to collect data from specified areas of the plane. During the operation, if one or more of the drones fails, the other drones are programmed to take over and finish the job.

The airline claims that by combining four drones, its engineering staff can reduce inspection time from ten to four hours.

“Korean Air exchanges inspection data via the cloud, allowing staff to conveniently review inspection findings anywhere and at any time,” according to the carrier. “A collision avoidance system and geo-fencing have also been used by the airline to maintain safe distances from nearby facilities and prevent break-aways from the mission area.”

Operators of the drone-based inspection system are conducting continual testing to improve the process’ accuracy. If everything goes according to plan, Korean Air hopes to start using the swarm technology next year.

In 2015, when European low-cost carrier easyJet said it was testing its own system, we first heard about airlines adopting drone technology for aircraft inspection. Austrian Airlines has lately begun deploying drones for the same type of operations.

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