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Drones inspecting planes is a little meta

Maintenance Automation is a startup using AI drones to inspect aircraft

Colby Harvey, aeronautical management technology senior, poses for a photo at the American Airlines maintenance facility at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017.

Maybe you've spotted your annoying neighbor's drone buzzing across the fence, or maybe you own one yourself. Whatever your relationship to drones, it's safe to say they are here to stay, as evidenced by the new startup, Maintenance Automation.

"We are a drone technology company that develops software to automate drone flight image sensing for fuselage inspections of aircraft in the hangar of airlines," Colby Harvey, ASU senior studying aeronautical management technology and CEO of Maintenance Automation, said.

Essentially, drones loaded up with Maintenance Automation software scour the outside of aircraft to identify any irregularities. Maintenance Automation got its start February of this year, but only gained real traction around August.

"That's when I got my team of capstone students to work on helping me develop the software," Harvey said.

Through a partnership with ASU's Ira. A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, Maintenance Automation has had the help of computer science engineering students. In turn, these students receive capstone credit that counts toward their degrees.

"I'm working on the simulation aspect," Braedon O'Meara, a senior majoring in CSE, said. 

O'Meara is one of the capstone students. Currently, they do not have a drone to work with, but in the meantime O'Meara, along with other capstone students, have been simulating a physical drone.

Drone dribbble

GIF by Down the Street Designs

"Once we do have a drone, it's going to be pretty expensive," O'Meara said. "We wouldn't want to be running our programs on it just to test out basic functionality, at risk of damaging the drone."

In the future, Maintenance Automation hopes to develop their own drone. For now, however, they are simply reprogramming a consumer drone.

"We're actually using one from DJI," Harvey said. "We're using a Matrice 200."

The Matrice 200 is a high-end drone in the neighborhood of $9,200. Its primary purpose is to be used as an enterprise survey drone.

"They just released this model, which is kind of nice," Harvey said. "It has both top and bottom mounted cameras, which is one of the biggest selling points. That does exactly what I need it to do."

While cameras are important, perhaps the defining feature of Maintenance Automation drones will be their artificial intelligence aspect. 

"My specialty is with AI algorithms," Christopher Monski, CTO of Maintenance Automation said. "The drones are ultimately going to be piloted by algorithm – they're going to be automated."

Artificial intelligence will help the drones fly around the aircraft and make sense of all the data they collect. Although Monski was familiar with AI algorithms, he needed to do a bit of research regarding aircraft inspection.

"When you're doing an artificial intelligence project, you have to research what the humans are doing to figure out how you can mimic it," Monski said.

Monski said that this process has taken a number of years with self-driving cars.

"Fortunately, the aircraft designers are a little bit of an easier problem," Monski said.

If Harvey and his team succeed, he expects drones to have a dramatic impact on aircraft inspections.

"It's less liability for human risk," Harvey said. "Drones are able to do it much faster. I can also call in outside, more experienced technicians to review the drone data."

Reach the reporter at or follow @deadrick_sam on Twitter. 

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