Drones Do Belong at Airports: American Airlines and DJI Demonstrate Why

DJI at American Airlines at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Bartram)

While many regulations focus on keeping drones away from airports, American Airlines (AA) and DJI are demonstrating drones as a critical tool for safety and efficiency.

Today at a media event prior to the official start of DJI’s Airworks conference, DRONELIFE got to see firsthand how the new Mavic 2E can save time and enhance safety for aircraft technicians.

American Airlines “has a rich culture of innovation,” explains Phil Easter, AA’s Head of Emerging Technologies.  The company has empowered their employees to be part of their development – sponsoring an event called HackWars, where AA designers, IT experts and developers congregate for a 24 hour intensive hack-a-thon. Lorie Grabham – AA’s lead drone integrator – was the head of a winning team two years ago when they presented their idea for drone inspections.  Today, AA and DJI demonstrated the resulting prototype.

Routine maintenance for an aircraft is labor intensive and expensive – an ideal target for a drone application.   With over 6000 flights daily, for AA it’s a major operational focus: “We have over 1,000 aircraft technicians here in Dallas, and over 12,000 worldwide,” says Lorne Cass, American Airline’s VP of Operations and Industry Affairs.  “This is a tool of the future that should be in every technician’s toolbox.”

Currently, inspection of a single aircraft takes 3 – 4 technicians using a bucket lift type piece of equipment between 1 -2 shifts (each 8 – 10 hours) to complete.  The heights are enormous, even for an aircraft on the ground; and the risks to the technicians as they inspect the tail and crown of the aircraft are not insignificant.

AA and DJI have developed an application using the new Mavic 2 Enterprise – launched officially today – to perform those inspections in about half the time.  Combining sophisticated machine learning with the Mavic 2E’s advanced hardware, the team is able to fly the Mavic 2E around the drone.  The drone identifies potential anomalies in real time from the footage, zooming in on areas of interest and providing technicians on the ground with detailed close ups of potential maintenance issues.

Spencer Kaiser, Principal Architect of American’s Emerging Technologies group, says it’s the right time for this application.  “The new features of the Mavic 2E – the speed, the quietness, the powerful camera – really make this possible,” he says.  “The ability to be serverless is critical for us to make the application work in the hangar, which often doesn’t have connectivity.  And the SDKs from Apple and from DJI were incredibly beneficial.”

“While this was still a challenging project, we were able to get it done in weeks rather than months,” says Kaiser.

With the prototype working, AA’s next focus is on moving the application through the process into production.  They’ll work on collecting real data from technicians to improve the machine learning model, and they’ll work on automating the flight around the aircraft to make the project more scalable.

In future, Cass says that the airline can envision other applications for drones in airports: like gathering data on runway closures quickly to minimize downtime and flight delays, or inspecting large areas of tarmac for potential debris.

“Our primary focus is safety,” says Cass. “But we can see that drones provide tremendous benefits, both for American and for our customers.”

Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
Email Miriam

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