Boeing is now using drones for aircraft pre-flight damage inspections

Boeing has teamed up with Near Earth Autonomy to develop a faster, better way to inspect aircraft for damage before takeoff.
Christopher McFadden
Drones could significantly improve pre-flight inspection times.


The United States Air Force (USAF), it is reported, has been trialing the use of drones to significantly cut down the time for aircraft inspections.

The trial uses drones, artificial intelligence, and technology to check for wear and tear quickly and efficiently. The trials are ongoing at the USAF's Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, conducted through a collaboration between Boeing and Near Earth Autonomy (a drone operating system developer).

The new inspection technique is being trailed on Boeing C-17 cargo planes. These drones aim to reduce the time and complexity of traditional exterior examinations while improving accuracy and reliability.

Using pattern recognition and 3D models, the drones quickly capture detailed information and send it to a secure repository for verification. This innovative approach ensures that no important details are missed and also saves hours.

Pre-flight inspection times are being slashed

“A preflight inspection right now can take up to four hours. We can do it in 30 minutes. That is a significant time saving for airmen and making sure that the aircraft is available, ready to go,” Alli Locher, a manager with Near Earth Autonomy, told reporters on June 27 at an event in Virginia.

“Eventually, you’ll be able to just pull up a tail number, click anywhere on that 3D model of that aircraft and be able to see a history of images of that exact part you clicked on from anywhere in the world over the life of the aircraft,” he added.

Seeing the bigger picture, it is clear that the U.S. Defense Department is getting ready for potential conflicts in the Indo-Pacific region and Europe, and initiatives like this could be beneficial.

In light of this, the Air Force is working on a new concept called "Agile Combat Employment" (ACE) which involves a hub-and-spoke layout of bases, with some being larger and fixed while others are smaller and mobile. The goal is to distribute human effort and know-how, which are already in high demand. To this end, such a reliable centralized means of collecting and evaluating aircraft status would be essential.

“The pictures are, literally, instantaneously live, sent to a cloud environment, where they can be analyzed by Near Earth Autonomy software and our automated damage detection software,” said Scott Belanger, a Boeing Global Services executive.

“We’re not trying to replace the human inspection. We’re trying to inform it. We’re trying to upskill that human inspection so when they do go on the tail, they’re not guessing: They know exactly what to bring, they know exactly what to expect,” he added.

Drones are more accurate than humans

During testing, the drones and their associated processes have successfully identified damage levels of up to 76% and 78%, as reported by Belanger. Although this falls under the "high C" category, it surpasses the human-only metric of 50%.

In the future, Boeing and Near Earth Autonomy plan to expand the range of drones to include the detection of subsurface damage and additional aircraft for inspection purposes. Recently, Lockheed Martin's C-5 plane was programmed, and Boeing's KC-135 and KC-46 are possible candidates for the next round of inspections.

“Our secret sauce here, that we use, is we have an autonomy back end on this drone that always knows where it is relative to the aircraft, not the environment around it,” Locher said. “With that, you can pretty much run any sensor and get a map of that sensor," he added.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board