EasyJet to use automated drones for aircraft inspection

Budget airline easyJet is testing automated drones to perform safety inspections of grounded aircraft. The drones scan the aircraft for signs of damage following incidents such as lightning or bird strike, and quickly identify any issues, so the amount of time the planes are out of action is substantially reduced.

(EASYJET) – UK-based airline carrier easyJet have announced a raft of new innovations that utilise new technology to reduce the amount of time an aircraft is out of service for maintenance.

They plan to use UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) drone technology to examine aircraft grounded following such incidents as lightning or bird strikes, and help to bring them back into service more quickly than with manual inspections alone.

“At the moment it takes quite a few people to get up and do an inspection of the aeroplane. They need to bring it into the hangar or drive heavy machinery around. And it takes quite a bit of time out of service; so it delays passengers. We’re introducing drones to try and increase safe, fast inspections so we can turn an aircraft round and get it back to service a lot quicker after lightening strikes and bird strikes,” said easyJet’s project manager, Mark Bunting.

The budget carrier recently successfully completed the first automated drone inspection of one of its aircraft, using a preprogrammed drone to scan and analayse the bodywork of one its planes. “The drone carries a high-resolution camera, able to take 4k pictures; so we think that’ll be equivalent to the eye. And it also carries sensing capability, which is an ‘avoid’ sensing capability, as well as a space-detect capability so it knows where it is in the environment,” added Bunting.

Engineers used laser scanning technology based on LiDAR [Light Detection and Radar]; a measurement, surveying and mapping system similar to radar that uses laser pulses instead of radio waves.

“We have a set of sensors on the front [of the drone] which are based on LiDAR (light detection and ranging). So basically that fires out thousands and thousands of laser beams every second, and each one of them is trying to measure the environment to figure out where the quad is,” explained Ashley Napier from partnering company Createc, who specialise in applied imaging and sensing.

EasyJet believes the technology could cut the time planes are out of use from days to hours. They aim to bring the drones into service in its engineering bases across Europe within 12 months.

The airline is also trialling the use of 3D printing to replace plastic parts within the cabin that are broken on a regular basis. This, said easyJet’s head of engineering Ian Davies, will speed up the replacement process and reduce the cost of ordering them directly from manufacturers.

“Some of the items we have in the cabin that get broken – arm-caps, the side panels, plastic items – at the moment they get broken day-in-day-out and are really hard to get; we have long lead times with the manufacturer. What we using is, we’re removing them, we’re scanning them, we are 3D-printing the prototype; and from the prototype we can create moulds to be able to make these things in thousands at a fraction of the cost that we used to.”

The company also announced that 3D printing will be a part of the next generation engines that easyJet has on order. The more fuel-efficient LEAP engine will feature 3D printed metal parts including fuel nozzles, carbon filter fan blades and ceramic matrix composites.

“Through our new engines, the LEAP 1-A, that we bought from CFM; these are the most advanced engines in the world. And in those there is technology – 3D printed metal technology that actually improves fuel-burn. And fuel-burn and fuel costs are our biggest costs; saving fuel means that our fares can remain low. So it’s really important that 3D technology not only gets through to use day-to-day in the cabin, it gets into production products such as out new engine,” added Davies.

New technology designed to make travel easier for passengers have also been a focus for easyJet, including a new app for the iPhone and Apple Watch. Meanwhile, a virtual reality cockpit – using virtual reality glasses from maker Oculus VR Inc – means that the changing design of cabins and the technology inside can be updated much more easily for training purposes.