Fanshawe students innovate drone runway inspection at London International Airport
The project is one of the first in Canada, airport officials say
It wasn't a bird. It wasn't a plane.
A drone hovering about 30 metres above ground Tuesday morning performed a runway inspection for the first time at the London International Airport – a pilot project launched in partnership with Fanshawe College.
"It's really rewarding. I'm really glad I'm here," said Breno Alvarenga, who dreamed up the idea while he was a student at Fanshawe's Norton Wolf School of Aviation and Aerospace Technology in 2020. "Now we are seeing it happening."
Nearly two kilometres of runway was closed for the morning while a team of students and faculty from Fanshawe and Rosor, a drone inspection company, collected real-time data for safety auditing such as cracks, buckling or sloping in the pavement.
"This is something that was built inside a classroom and now it's here in the real world. It has a real application for the industry," said Alvarenga, who worked as an air traffic controller in Brazil before attending Fanshawe. His idea won an award at Fanshawe's research and innovation day.
"It's a kind of inspection that is done by the airport visually with the use of vehicles and humans, but now with the drone it's much safer and cheaper," he said.
While it's still a pilot project, Alvarenga hopes the airport operators will find it efficient – saving money and time and improving safety.
"I think that the drone industry is something that we're going to see grow," he said.
Project brings airport inspection into the digital-age
The data helps assess what changes need to be made on the runway moving forward, said Adam Debevc, coordinator of Fanshawe's one-year drone certificate, Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems Commercial Operations program.
The visual data is gathered through photogrammetry, which Debevc described as thousands of overlapping photos that make one large photo when stitched together offering detail.
It brings airport inspections "into the digital-age," he said, and offers students a "real-world application" of their studies.
"It's massive. This is a signature innovative learning experience," he said. "Students have an opportunity to take what they've learned in the classroom and bring it into the field."
Students will work with the data collected back in the classroom, he said.
'I think we are doing something extraordinary'
The opportunity is "beyond" expectations for Fanshawe student Will Su, who worked as an airline pilot in China before joining the program.
They used knowledge learned in-class to do something innovative to help the industry move forward, he said. Students took the initial concept and combined experience and knowledge to conduct the project with the help of faculty.
"We planned in the class for a long time," he said. "I think we are doing something extraordinary — pioneering things in this industry."
The London airport is "one of the few in Canada to start this," said Steve Faulkner, operations manager at the London International Airport. "As time goes on, I think you're going to see more and more."
The data offers far more detail which helps with accuracy, long-term maintenance planning, and budgeting, he said.
"So far, today, it has been a tremendous success," Faulkner said.