Delta Air Lines, one of the world’s largest commercial carriers by fleet size, operates numerous aircraft types – from Airbus A350s all the way down to 9kg (20lb) DJI M300 autonomous drones.
But the Atlanta-based carrier’s two drones – named “Dolly” and “Reba” – are not just for fun. They are central to a new programme designed to revolutionise the airline’s maintenance operations, and Emma Galarza is spearheading that effort.
Galarza is a senior engineer with Delta TechOps, the division responsible for aircraft repair and maintenance. She studied mechanical engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology and first landed at Delta in 2018, while still in school.
“It can be difficult to get your foot in the door, but I ended up at a career fair talking with one of just a few people at Delta who worked in fatigue and failure analysis. That was how I got my first role.”
The job was a so-called “co-op” role – meaning Galarza worked full time at Delta while still a student. At the end of the programme she had logged a full year of employment at the airline.
“Internships are usually extremely short, and engineering work typically takes longer than that to make an impact. So it was a unique opportunity to really work like a full-time engineer at a company, but still also go back to school,” Galarza says.
She worked on a team that dabbled in new technologies, and quickly took a liking to drones. The company was considering investing further in that emerging technology, although this was still “a side task that the engineers could do when they had time”, she says.
After graduating and working at other jobs to broaden her horizons – including developing plant-based cheese products at food giant Kraft Heinz – Galarza in late 2022 received a call from a former manager at Delta. The airline, it seemed, was ready to go all-in on some innovations.
She rejoined the company in January 2023, and her job now is to examine how new tools can improve and speed up maintenance tasks, while also maintaining the high safety standards that are integral to commercial aviation.
“The area of technology that I own is advanced inspection and machine learning, and the drone project is the first application there,” Galarza says.
Delta works with Dutch company Mainblades, which specialises in using small drones to inspect aircraft. After earning a Federal Aviation Administration Part 107 drone operator certificate, Galarza spent time learning at the company’s headquarters in the Netherlands.
“Since then, we’ve been basically designing experiments [and] testing the programme. We want to understand if it’s equivalent to our current processes, and build a data package,” she says. “It’s something very new for the industry, so we’re just learning about it all – basically making sure we’re covering our bases.”
Drone inspections do not completely replace their manual equivalent but could become a significant time-saver for the airline and its technicians. For instance, drones can assist with inspecting jets after lightning strikes.
“Any time a plane flies through a storm, a pilot might report a suspected lightning strike. When that happens, when the plane has landed, maintenance has to inspect the whole aircraft.”
Thoroughly inspecting a widebody A350 after such an event takes up to 16h of labour, with mechanics on lifts or suspended by harnesses above an aircraft that, at its tallest point, is as high as a four-storey building. They must examine every inch of the airframe to ensure nothing has been damaged.
“Not only is it very time consuming, but any time we have mechanics working at height it’s also a safety concern,” Galarza says. “The autonomous drone is able to fly around the entire aircraft and take photos of everything in about an hour and 15 minutes.”
Inspectors and technicians then scrutinise the images on the ground.
When storms strike, several airframes may have to be removed from service for inspections simultaneously. The drone’s quick work can expedite getting them back in the air by helping technicians prioritise repairs.
Delta has approval from US regulators to fly the drones indoors and outdoors at maintenance facilities in Atlanta, Detroit and Minneapolis. But as things now stand, it can only use the remote aircraft for non-safety critical inspection work, such as looking for paint blemishes. In the future, the team hopes for approval to use the drones for critical aircraft inspections.
Aviation was not on Galarza’s initial list of top career choices, but she has grown to love the industry, and the diversity of jobs it offers engineers.
“I thought it’d be great to go work at Porsche or Mercedes, designing cars, or working in the biomedical field, making prosthetics. Aviation and aerospace came to me later on, after a bit more experience and understanding of what types of careers there are.”
She wants to keep working with cutting-edge technologies and the maintenance teams that keep the fleet flying.
“I’m creating tools that are helping our people on the ground do their jobs safer and more efficiently. It’s unique to have an engineer who gets to spend time with [them]. And that’s something that I hope to continue in the future here.”