The drone that helps planes land well

A technology using drones to calibrate PAPI systems
With whom?
The ADP Group’s innovation team and the startup Canard Drones
In operation since 2018

Landing an aircraft is an exercise that demands extreme precision. To make this task easier, pilots use an instrument that enables them to adjust their glide path so they can touch down in the right spot. However, this tool must be calibrated down to the millimeter. Until recently, this costly and complex operation was performed by another aircraft. That is until drones entered the scene…

Do you know PAPI?

PAPI (Precision Approach Path Indicator) systems are a crucial visual aid for landing an aircraft. Located next to the runway, this instrument needed by pilots is composed of four light units aligned in a row.

When the approach angle is correct, the pilot will see two red lights and two white lights. When the angle is too high, all lights appear white; when it is too low, all lights are red.

transmission angle drones PAPI

The PAPI indicator lights are calibrated to the ideal approach angle for landing the aircraft. But a sudden impact or jet blast can knock the indicators out of alignment. Teams can correct the faulty incline of a PAPI system by tightening the mount that secures it to the ground.

Until now, this calibration was performed by airplane, manned by a crew and numerous technicians. Due to the high financial and environmental cost of this process, our group replaced this technology more than ten years ago with an aerial platform, which has a much lighter footprint.

Dispositif drones PAPI

Drones among the aircraft

Meeting the startup Canard Drones allowed us to begin considering drones as a more flexible and cost-effective solution. Based in Spain, the startup received an innovation prize in 2016 for developing a use case for drones in the airport environment.

With this technology, the process now requires only a single human intervention, performed by the pilot (whose presence is still required by current regulations) to start the drone for takeoff. Next, the drone is guided by a high-precision navigation and positioning system. It then transmits extremely precise data to a software program.

[The drone] is more than just a tool. Our job is to develop fully integrated solutions
Sergio Lopez Varela
CEO of Canard Drones

Ensuring a safe roll-out of this technology

From the start, our operational teams in charge of airport environments took an active role in the project. The French Civil Aviation Authority (DGAC) also partnered with the project to ensure a highly productive collaboration.

In fact, the biggest setbacks were operational rather than regulatory. For each operation, a new study was performed to assess every possible risk. At first, the calibration technology was still in the test phase, but we later received a protocol approved by the French Civil Aviation Authority.

December 2017
The month of our first successful test!

After the first test in 2017 and following successful adjustment tests on two runways at Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport, the Civil Aviation Technical Service (STAC) granted its approval in July 2018 to calibrate PAPI systems by drone for a period of ten years.

On the back of these regulatory and technical advances, we can now design a fleet of autonomous drones to perform our maintenance tasks. The technique is expected to be deployed at Paris-Orly and Paris-Le Bourget airports.

canard drone

Drones offer many benefits

This innovative technique offers a considerable advantage to a platform like Paris-Charles de Gaulle. For the Group, it provides extra benefits in terms of organization – PAPI systems can now be calibrated in twenty minutes – and finances, as the system enables significant cost reductions.

Drones do not disrupt air traffic and they provide data immediately
Sébastien Couturier
Manager of our Innovation department

Drones are not a new field for us. Already in 2017, we joined the Drone Systems chair at the French Civil Aviation University (ENAC), the first to tackle the question of including drones in airspace. The work carried out by these researchers, with the support of teams from the university, aims to promote the development of standards and procedures for operating drone systems, in order to pave the way to new civil applications.