For KLM, inspection of Mainblades drones is set to become an essential part of aircraft maintenance

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines has taken another step towards the systematic use of drones for the inspection of passenger aircraft. He is transforming his previously exploratory relationship with service provider UAV Mainblades into a multi-year partnership that aims to develop the automated process into a regular part of airlines’ maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) activities.

The Hague-based Mainblades and KLM announced on Wednesday the extension of their existing cooperation. What had been a quasi-proof of concept project started in 2015 to test drones in automated aircraft inspections will give way to a three-step development process. This involves fine-tuning the technology, obtaining certification for its regular use at Amsterdam-Schiphol Airport, and handing it over to KLM Engineering & Maintenance (E&M) technicians who ensure that the company’s aircraft are in good condition.

Until now, Mainblades had carried out drone inspection tests of KLM craft for minor damage inflicted by events such as hailstorms and lightning. Images taken from these were fed by artificial intelligence algorithms for instant analysis, which technicians tracked and responded to on linked tablets. In addition to proving that the technique was effective in detecting actual or potential deficiencies and determining corrective actions, the consultation process allowed KLM E&M employees to interact with Mainblades managers, who then tailored the system to the requirements. and actual usage preferences.

The new chapter that opens aims to move from this exploratory mode to that of long-term deployment in KLM’s MRO activities. Although many groups have tested the automated use of drones in inspections of passenger and military aircraft, KLM-Mainblades’ goal of bringing this to a certified and routine operational reality could have huge consequences.

Every minute an aircraft is idle on the ground is a waste of money for the airline, with controls and MRO interventions accounting for a large part of that downtime. The ability to have drones to quickly and efficiently take on the work of the six to eight humans who currently have to access the fuselage and wings during manual checks would mean huge savings in time – and with it, money. And in an era still punctuated by covid restrictions, automated aerial inspections and instant digital scans could allow officials unable to be physically present to make informed decisions about the need for repairs.

“With several hundred inspections on average per year, the potential savings in resources that we expect are quite significant,” explains Bas de Glopper, innovation manager for KLM MRO Lab. “The use cases are numerous because the Mainblades drone is a very modular system. It works on any model of aircraft, both inside and outside the hangar, and most importantly, can be used during regular maintenance operations. This flexibility is unique in this area.

Three-step plan for automated drone inspections of passenger aircraft

The first phase of the extended partnership involves the creation of 3D LiDAR digital maps of KLM’s A330, B737, B777 and B787 aircraft. These will be crucial in enabling Mainblades drones to understand the make-up of the craft and the surrounding hangar space, and to provide consistent and reliable structural data no matter how and where the jets are positioned.

The second aims to achieve full certification of the process, which would allow the automated inspection of drones of passenger aircraft to become a true regular MRO tool. The third phase will be to train KLM E&M technicians to feel comfortable and confident in piloting efficient drone controls with much less physical effort and time than manual methods require.

“Mainblades and KLM E&M are showing the industry that aircraft inspections with drones are ready for everyday use,” said Dejan Borota, CEO of Mainblades. “Drone inspections at KLM E&M will be a game-changer. Our partnership has been beneficial to both parties in the past and we look forward to adding value to KLM E & M’s ambitious roadmap for digitizing and automating their operations in the future.

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