Korean Air, the flag carrier of South Korea, is making significant progress in its innovative drone swarm test program for inspecting aircraft and identifying any wear, weaknesses, or damages that may require repairs. While the airline initially announced its plans for integrating drone swarms into regular inspections of passenger and cargo planes in 2021, it has continued to enhance and refine these activities with increasing levels of sophistication and functionality.
The utilization of drones in Korean Air's maintenance, repair, and operation operations has inspired other major carriers, such as KLM, the flagship airline of the Netherlands, to focus on swarm inspections as a crucial aspect of their aircraft oversight development.
Recent reports indicate that Korean Air has advanced its early drone inspections from basic scans and data analysis collected by nearby pilots to automated functions empowered by artificial intelligence applications. These advancements include object avoidance technology to prevent swarm crafts from colliding with each other or the aircraft being inspected, geofencing to restrict their movement to specific areas, and pre-set flight instructions that reduce the involvement of pilots from controllers to observers.
The progress of Korean Air's drone program has garnered increased support from the South Korean government, which recognizes its potential and is backing its continued development for swarm inspections. While the trials on Boeing 737 aircraft have shown promising results in terms of saving time and cutting costs, it is unlikely that this method will entirely replace visual inspections conducted by human experts in the foreseeable future.
The use of drone swarms has allowed Korean Air, KLM, and other airlines exploring this technology to collect data from aircraft wings, tails, and the upper half of the fuselage, eliminating the need for physical exertion and reducing the risk associated with human inspectors using scaffolding systems to access these areas. However, aerial scrutiny is not expected to completely replace manual inspections due to limitations in the available space for small drone operations beneath the large and low-slung commercial aircraft. Additionally, visual inspections by experienced human inspectors are still considered more reliable than current rotor-borne technology, which is constantly being analyzed, checked, and measured for both strengths and weaknesses as it continues to evolve.