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Fanshawe students innovate drone runway inspection at London International Airport | CBC News

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. 

Breno Alvarenga created the pilot project concept while a student at Fanshawe’s Norton Wolf School of Aviation and Aerospace Technology in 2020. (Michelle Both/CBC)

“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.

Students and staff from Fanshawe College using a drone to inspect the runway at the London International Airport.

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.

Adam Debevc is the coordinator of Fanshawe College’s Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems Commercial Operations program, focused on aerial data collection, drone operation and design. (Michelle Both/CBC)

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. 

Two people in safety vests stand on a runway
Fanshawe students Swaroop Rachamallu (left) and Will Su (right) took part in the runway inspection Tuesday. They attend Fanshawe’s Norton Wolf School of Aviation and Aerospace Technology located next to the London International Airport. (Michelle Both/CBC)

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.”

A drone flies in the sky
A team from Toronto-based Rosor Exploration came to London to operate the Matrice 300 RTK model drone as part of the safety inspection at the London International Airport. (Michelle Both/CBC)

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. 

“It’s a first for us and it’s a first for the college, and I think this is something that is going to continue on into the future.”

building with red sign
Fanshawe College operates Norton Wolf School of Aviation and Aerospace Technology next to the London International Airport. Students and faculty from the one-year graduate certificate in Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems Commercial Operations took part in the pilot project Tuesday. (Michelle Both/CBC)

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