Taking bold strides in modernizing aircraft inspection procedures, Korean Air is moving forward with an innovative swarm drone approach. The technique, initially showcased in late 2021, uses a group of drones to expedite inspection time and ensure thorough coverage, even if one of the drones fails. Since its introduction, the technology has been enhanced and received backing from the government.
Korean Air's method employs the latest in Drone Technology, including preset inspection plans, geofencing to restrict drones to defined areas, an anti-collision system, and AI. These locally made drones are capable of detecting a range of defects, like dents and cracks, thanks to Artificial Intelligence.
These AI-equipped drones are set to supplement, but not completely replace, mandatory manual inspections conducted at specified intervals or when flight logs hint at possible airframe damage. The drones will primarily scrutinize the aircraft's top parts – the fuselage, wings, and tail sections – that pose inspection challenges for mechanics.
After performing tests on numerous Boeing 737s, Korean Air made some adjustments, such as the distance between the drone and the aircraft and the duration of the drone inspection. As the project looks increasingly promising, it has recently secured governmental assistance for maintenance research and development.
While much of the necessary technology for this drone swarm approach is already in place, the airline still needs to amass substantial inspection data for AI diagnosis, which will be sourced from Korean Air's maintenance sites.
Once this real-world data is fed into the system, AI is expected to streamline inspections and reduce human errors via an automatic defect detection function. This should render the need for human inspectors redundant.
The spokesperson for the airline emphasized, “Field staff who can operate the drone will need to be present in the case of any unexpected situation.”
While geofencing can confine drone operations to hangars, Korean Air is planning to deploy drones on aprons if allowed. The airline plans to first apply this approach to its 737s and later expand to other aircraft types and offer the service to other carriers.
Korean Air is presently working towards securing regulatory approval for this technology. In tandem with this, Korea's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport is amending its inspection regulations. The timeline for regulatory approval is still uncertain, according to an airline spokesperson.
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