To ensure safety, all aircraft need to be regularly inspected for any damages. If an aircraft were to malfunction because of a skipped inspection, the fallout could be catastrophic. The Federal Aviation Administration requires all aircraft, whether they are commercial, military, recreational, or for education, to be inspected every 12 months. Beyond that, aircraft undergo scheduled 50hour or 100hour inspections, unscheduled inspections, and preflight checks.
Each aircraft inspection is critical but can be very time consuming and costly. Simply the cost of decommissioning an aircraft for inspection can be upwards of $10,000/hour. Using a drone could drastically cut down the time needed to inspect an aircraft. In 2015 Yann Bruner, Matthieu Claybrough, Josselin Bequet, and Alban Deruaz-Pepin formed the company Donecle that would replace manual visual aircraft inspections with a drone, a concept they presented at the Paris Air Show. And though many airlines were skeptical, they recognized the time and money saving benefits of using drones to visually and autonomously inspect an aircraft.
In September of 2021, Donecle announced that they had completed a trial with 8tree, a company that specializes in 3D surface inspection tools. 8tree developed a scanner that could be outfitted on one of Donecle’s drones to inspect an aircraft to the highest degree possible. While Donecle was previously taking HD photos, 8tree’s laser based scanner would be able to provide a much deeper look at the external structure being inspected. Collaborating with the French aircraft manufacturer Dassault, Donecle, and 8tree headed out to the 118 Military Airbase in Mont-de-Marsan to begin testing of the drone scanner called dentCHECK.
After spending 18 months trialing the dentCHECK system on a series of Dassault Rafale fighter jets, Donecle and 8tree announced that the system could completely inspect the outside of the aircraft in just an hour. As the drone/scanner’s name implies, dentCHECK inspects the outside of an aircraft from dents caused by air debris, lightings strikes, and typical wear and tear. Arun Chabbra, founder and CEO of 8tree explained that dentCHECK can gather dent data that would be impossible for a human to do manually. By using dentCHECK airlines can “achieve greater than 90% time-saving when mapping dents, all with the click of one button,” Mr. Chabbra said. “dentCHECK measures dents as small as 50-microns, that’s about half the thickness of a human hair!”
The drone autonomously flies along an uploaded map to scan the aircraft with dentCHECK. The images are then overlaid with images of a pristine aircraft for comparison. After repeat inspections, the drone system builds an accountability map of dents on the aircraft that will allow maintenance crews to efficiently plan repairs. In June of 2021, Doencel and 8tree held a presentation for the French Defence Innovation Agency in Mont-de-Marsan and then at the Innovation Defence Lab in Paris. The results of these demonstrations led to the drone based inspection program being approved for use on any French aircraft.