Drones could be an important tool in improving the flights of commercial, passenger airlines.
This summer, LATAM Airlines, one of the largest airlines in Brazil, announced that it has begun tests to use drones in the exterior inspection of its aircraft fuselages. LATAM said that early tests have already been able to reduce the process from eight hours to 40 minutes, while also making the entire process not simply more efficient but more secure.
How LATAM Airlines uses drones to inspect aircraft
In the LATAM inspection tests, drones fly all around the aircraft on an automated machine, programmed to take as many as 2,000 photos throughout the entire fuselage. The next step — which is perhaps just as important in making drones viable — is also automated. Artificial intelligence technology is used to identify potential damage and, if necessary, the required repairs.
For now, LATAM is running tests of drones in its Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) facilities located in São Carlos, Brazil, as well as a Maintenance Center in Santiago, Chile.
EasyJet used drones for inspections as far back as 2015
But LATAM’s efforts are nothing new. Budget carrier easyJet has been using drones at least as far back as 2015, when it announced plans to inspect planes for damage from lightning strikes using automated drones.
In that project, EasyJet used a two-foot wide quadcopter drone carrying electro-optical, light detection and ranging sensors. The drone would then fly about three feet away from the drone, locating damage caused by lightning strikes.
Korean Air makes inspections even more efficient with drone swarms
Just one drone isn’t enough for Korean Air. At the end of 2021, Korean Air showed off its aircraft inspection technology using drone swarms, making Korea-based airline the first to use multiple drones simultaneously for inspections.
The airline’s drones are one-meter in width and height and weigh 5.5kg.
ANA considers getting into drone delivery
LATAM is not the first commercial airline to turn to drones though. Japanese airline ANA, also known as All Nippon Airways, has been exploring drones for a few years for an entirely different function: drone deliveries.
Last year, Germany drone delivery company Wingcopter partnered with ANA in a test where the two aviation companies used Wingcopter’s electrical fixed-wing VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) aircraft to explore a drone delivery network across Japan.
A major moment for that test ever was back in March 2021 when a drone flew across a remote region between Fukuejima and Hisakajima in Goto City, Nagasaki Prefecture to demonstrate the viability of using drones to delivery medical supplies, with the intent of increasing delivery speeds.
ANA’s footprint in drones grew in late 2021 when The New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (known as NEDO), which is Japan’s largest public management organization for industrial, energy and environmental technologies, got in on the project. NEDO is leading a project to develop a drone traffic management system for multiple drone operators to fly in the same airspace safely.
ANA has been participating with NEDO by delivering prescription drugs using drones to remote disconnected areas.