Flying data collectors - quality management & services by drones

Whether on water, in the air or even on the ground: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), commonly referred as drone for short, are used in many different ways. In the age of industry 4.0 also for quality assurance.

Drones as powerful tools - not only in movies

In the civilian sector, similar to the development of aircraft, ever smaller and better cameras brought the breakthrough of drones - film and television benefited enormously therefrom. Whereas a giant film team with a gigantic camera crane or even a helicopter crew had previously been required for a camera ride along a skyscraper, such shots had long been taken by "flying high-tech cameras". Under drones, they not only ensure high quality in the dream factory, but also in the real world.

Examples are drone missions to assess the situation for the police and fire brigade. More and more often departments are considering the purchase of such a flying device. A representative survey carried out by Infas on behalf of the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), the results of which were published in December, shows that drones are highly accepted by society. While the interviewees are rather sceptical about the delivery of parcels or the production of news material by drones, the use of drones for police, emergency and catastrophe missions is assessed positively. Accordingly, the aid organisations active in catastrophe protection are also equipping themselves with drones. Last year, the Paris Autosalon was one of the places to see where this is going: The British car manufacturer Land Rover presented an emergency vehicle designed jointly with the Austrian Red Cross with an eight-rotor reconnaissance drone, which can be sent off from the car roof and also land there again. The use of UAV to solve complex tasks, however, requires a high level of expertise, which DLR has already taken on. In the EU-funded "Horizon 2020" research programme, DLR is supporting the IN-PREP project, with which a training platform for emergency forces is to be developed, by acting as a technical partner for drone-shooting.


Aviation companies react

Lufthansa has also thought about safety standards and training for drone missions and entered the business two years ago. With their "safe drone" platform launched in 2017, Lufthansa employees are not only focusing on safety in unmanned aviation. Finding suitable equipment with skilled personnel becomes more complicated as this area expands. Lufthansa's new platform is therefore also designed to act as an intermediary platform for providers and customers of special drone services.


 
 

The new Airbus Advanced Inspection Drone supports employees in the maintenance of the A320.©Airbus

The development of unmanned flying systems has not only triggered movement among carriers. Airbus, too, is well advanced in the development and production of larger military drones, which even enter the stratosphere for reconnaissance purposes powered purely by solar energy. Two and a half years ago, the company demonstrated the inspection of an Airbus A350 at the Farnborough Airshow. The regularly prescribed maintenance of commercial aircraft also includes a visual inspection of the entire outer shell of the aircraft, its engines, tail units and wings. Until now, this has mainly been done on scaffolded aircrafts in large maintenance hangars - because you can't simply climb up the tail unit of an Airbus with a casual ladder. Depending on the size of the sample, a complete external visual inspection can take a full day - downtimes that maintenance operations seek to minimize, among other things, by supporting the ARTS Mobile Aircraft Maintenance Crew.

The inspection of the A350 surface with a camera drone in Farnborough was a success - the shots were taken after only a quarter of an hour. Airbus therefore continued to advance the technology and started to develop standard procedures for this new maintenance technology together with EASA. At the end of last year, the company announced the introduction of its Advanced Inspection Drone.


The field of maintenance

The aircraft manufacturer has thus succeeded in dramatically reducing the time required for this maintenance. Instead of an entire day, it now only takes about three hours - half an hour for a drone mission. This involves taking pictures of the aircraft following an accurate grid, which are then joined together to create a 3D model that exactly matches the target condition of the aircraft and can therefore precisely determine any necessary repairs, including individual paint repairs.


The Advanced Inspection Drone analyzes the necessary maintenance work in a short period of time.

The Airbus Advanced Inspection Drone helps to drastically reduce maintenance times.©Airbus SAS

However, it was not only aviation that discovered how much time and personnel can be saved by using UAV. Before that, "flying cameras" had already found their way into quality assurance and the maintenance of buildings of all kinds. Whether bridge constructions, high-voltage roads or dams, building roofs, solar parks or wind-powered plants - where industrial climbers, abseiling devices, lift trucks or scaffolds used to be necessary, today experts at drone remote controls do this job - even with thermal imaging cameras under the drones. This combination is even used in agriculture and forestry to assess the quality of plants or wildlife. With real image cameras under the drones, hail damage on farmland is now even recorded. And in connection with thermal image cameras they were used recently even for the first time for disease defense: in Rhineland-Palatinate from concern around the advancement of the African swine fever (ASP) in the past year, in order to track down boars! Thermal imaging cameras have been used for some time to monitor thermal leaks in buildings and industrial facilities under drones. And in the USA they are now being tested to maintain the mobile network in hurricane areas.

All these purposes have in common the old rule that flying takes place outside. But as the example of Airbus shows, increasingly better obstacle and position sensors have also made modern UAV "indoor-compatible". This means that the technology is now ready for further dissemination in those areas of the ground where GPS signals are no longer sufficient: the world of production and assembly halls. Accordingly, a German car manufacturer has also tested the use of drones in production.


The field of production and quality assurance

Audi has tested a drone in the production of the A3 and Q2. Because in the grown structure of the factory buildings the paths are often long and narrow, some parts can be transported to the assembly site more quickly by drone than by industrial truck. And the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Applied Materials Research (IFAM) goes one step further: Why should drones only be used as a quality assurance tool when they even have the potential of autonomous testers? IFAM practices this above all in the way it collects data - because up to now this has only been done with drones in "non-touching" applications. But what if UAV sensors could also "dock" to components - such as the rotor blades of wind turbines - in order to carry out measurements on the material?


Drones are particularly suitable for long and narrow transport routes.

Drones are also increasingly being used in warehouses to transport goods, for example.

On the flight side, the conditions are now in place - drones can be sent along exact flight paths previously created on the computer and today have sufficiently sensitive manoeuvrability and sensors to fly precisely and avoid obstacles. The potential for development still remains above all in the interfaces for fully automated data acquisition - and in the fact that the required data cannot only be captured "contactlessly", as is already the case with modern camera technology.


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