British low-budget airline EasyJet has partnered with tech companies to develop an unmanned aircraft system for aircraft inspection.
Part of a set of new technologies introduced by easyJet to increase safety, the drones will be programmed to scan and assess the company’s fleet of Airbus A319 and A320 planes.
EasyJet believes the drones will be able to perform in hours what would otherwise require days of work of human technicians.
"Drone technology could be used extremely effectively to help us perform aircraft checks,” said easyJet’s chief engineer Ian Davies. "Checks that would usually take more than a day could be performed in a couple of hours and potentially with greater accuracy."
The company has launched cooperation with UK companies Coptercraft, Bristol Robotics Laboratory and Measurement Solutions to modify existing technology to suit the aviation industry needs.
"Aircraft inspection is a great application for drones,” said Arthur Richards, head of aerial robotics at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, a partnership between the University of Bristol and the University of West England. “Coupled with smart navigation and computer vision, they can get accurate data from really awkward places.”
The drones will be primarily used to perform quick checks and alert technicians to spots that might require further and more detailed inspection. EasyJet hopes the drones may join its technical workforce in a few months.
EasyJet also announced today that it was looking at deploying new technology to enable a remote engineering team to see exactly what a pilot or engineer is seeing using virtual reality glasses.
The glasses use the world's first high definition see-through display system, providing augmented reality to help easyJet remotely diagnose a technical issue.
The technology will be especially useful in some of the airline's more remote airports across its network which spreads as far as Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt and Tel Aviv in Israel.
Currently, if anything goes wrong, the engineers on site have to email pictures to the UK-based engineering centre and resolve the problems over the phone. The technology thus promises not only speeding up the workflow but also increasing accuracy and thereby safety.
The company will also install a state-of-the-art fault prognosis tool providing the airline’s operations and engineering staff with live updates directly from all of its aircraft as they fly.
The system is an innovative web-based software system from FlightWatching called WILCO which can receive real-time values of aircraft system parameters via the ACARS messaging system. This data is then transformed into an animated schematic that can be used to predict any potential issues or to troubleshoot known technical faults before the plane lands.
EasyJet chief executive Carolyn McCall said: "We have examined and assessed cutting edge technology across many different industries and are now applying a range of new technologies to the aviation sector for the first time to help us run our fleet of aircraft more effectively, efficiently and safely."
In addition, the carrier is bringing in special apps designed to aid engineers and pilots in key tasks and is also making its flights paperless. Instead of having to print out navigational charts and heavy log books for every flight, easyJet pilots will have Panasonic Toughpads fitted into the cockpits, saving the company some $500,000 on fuel costs each year.