Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been used to inspect the runway at Cranfield Airport remotely for the first time.
The flights make use of ‘drone-in-a-box’ technology with the aim of enabling routine inspections to take place with UAVs that can be automatically deployed, recovered and recharged without the need for an on-site pilot.
In the future, drones could be used to inspect other areas such as perimeter fences and take place regularly – for example, in the morning before the Airport opens, and in the evening after closing – to detect damage or the presence of foreign objects which can be dangerous for aircraft.
Rob Abbott, director of Aviation Operations at Cranfield Airport, said: “As a fully-functional research airport located on a university campus, this kind of technology demonstration and development exercise is very much in our DNA.
“Using UAVs to conduct inspections could reduce operational costs and is another example of the work we are doing to explore and harness the potential of unmanned aircraft.”
While Edward Anastassacos, managing director of HEROTECH8, the company providing the ‘drone-in-a-box’ system, said: “We are very excited to be working on this with Cranfield Airport. We see enormous benefits to using drone-in-a-box technology for industrial inspection and monitoring applications.
“With Cranfield, we hope to demonstrate a continuous runway monitoring capability. These flights are a step towards fully automated, industrial drone operations at scale.”
Due to current visual line of sight (VLOS) restrictions, initial flights are inspecting half of the runway and take around 30 minutes, with the drones flying at 100 feet from the ground.
Flight requests to air traffic control are made prior to each flight and then images or videos taken are combined and uploaded to cloud storage for visual review. Work is ongoing to automate the evaluation process with the use of more advanced sensors or thermal imaging cameras to detect and highlight hazards.
Regulations currently require UAVs to be operated within VLOS of the remote pilot at all times.