Drones coming into their own for Runway Safety Checks

UAV technology continues to impress the world as its extremely long list of potential applications moves from theory to practice, with leading companies across major industries successfully implementing them into different parts of their operations. The end of 2019 witnessed a flurry of drone developments, including deliveries to a nuclear submarine, food delivery drone launches, the completion of a 780-orbit of the Earth and a Canadian airport conducting successful airport runway checks with UAV technology. 

While drones and airports have made for an uneasy mix in recent years – with private-use drones playing havoc with major airport operations in highly publicised incidents – the proactive integration of UAV technology into the aviation industry is a long-term imperative. Their utility, versatility and reliability means that they simply have too much to offer airports, whose operations are becoming increasingly complex and pressurised in the face of rising global air travel demand.

 

Runway inspection drones launch at Edmonton International Airport (EIA), Canada

EIA is the main passenger and air freight airport of Alberta in Canada, and features over two million square feet of runways, taxiways and aircraft handling aprons spread across its operational area. Not only does this critical infrastructure suffer from the general wear and tear of the daily flight rotation, it also suffers from extreme weather conditions common to Canada’s cold climate. 

These circumstances make regular and thorough runway inspections even more of a vital task than at other major airports. However, the traditional method of manual inspection undertaken by ground teams can take days and their efficacy can be severely reduced in the event of harsh weather conditions. Typically, the traditional process of sending teams out armed with cameras to visually inspect and record data of all runway damage can take hours, depending on the length of the runway.

Enter the AERIUM Microdrone md4-1000 – capable of collecting comprehensive Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) data and photographic/video imagery across the entirety of EIA’s runways in a fraction of the time it would take an engineering team, while yielding more detailed and accurate data in the process. EIA spokespersons have said that drones are proving increasingly vital to their preventative maintenance operations, boosting the timeliness of essential repair works and subsequently raising safety levels without putting human operators at undue risk. 

 

The future of drones in runway inspections 

UAV technology has already proven its worth in terms of its ability to give operators a comprehensive overview of the state of their infrastructure through detailed 3D mapping in a timely and cost-effective manner. This proved to be the case for the construction industry and the Oil and Gas industry, and now the aviation industry is coming round to utilising drones. In EIA’s case, this has led to better planning of strategic repair works, subsequently leading to runways staying open for longer while alleviating passenger delays and risks to aircraft. Other major airports are likely to follow suit in the near future.

Looking ahead, in order to fully unlock the potential of drone-based runway inspections, airports are going to have to develop more rigorous and flexible systems for integrating drone flights into routine operational conditions. For the world’s largest airports, finding a window of opportunity to safely  launch drones without shutting down all flights will be a significant challenge, necessitating greater innovation to come up with ways for drones to fly safely around arriving and departing planes.

 

This article was created in association with Airport Show taking place in Dubai on 26-28 October 2020. 

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