Airliners aren't the cheapest form of transportation to run – not the least because of the costs run up by the detailed inspections required by safety regulations on a regular basis. easyJet and Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) have announced that they've entered into a partnership to adapt drones for inspecting easyJet’s fleet of 220 Airbus aircraft as part of a larger package of technological innovations designed to make inspections between flights faster and more efficient.
Inspecting any aircraft is much more than just a matter of tapping the gauges and seeing if the oil light has come on, and that goes double for passenger airliners. It requires highly involved checklists that view any automatic system with deep suspicion combined with a minute visual inspection inside and out. That would be hard enough with something static and regular shaped, but with a huge, mobile machine like an airliner that’s all wings and curves, routine inspections can have all the logistical simplicity of measuring a sperm whale for a jumpsuit.
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With smart navigation and increasingly sophisticated visual sensors, drones seem like a logical choice for improving aircraft inspections. The unmanned quadcopters can move around the plane easily without the need for ladders or cranes, and the inspection flight path can even be autonomous.
According to the partners, the drones have a strong economic case. The job of the drones wouldn't be to replace human inspectors, but to carry out routine inspections and report any damage that might require further inspection or repair. The drones can take up the slack from the engineers, allowing them to concentrate on where their skills are needed, as well as keeping costs down. In addition, the drones would speed up inspections, which would reduce aircraft turn around time and improve punctuality.
The alliance with BRL will involve taking existing drones and modifying them, so they can be programmed to scan and inspect the planes with aim of beginning field tests in a few months before rolling them out for general use next year.
The partners say that this drone project is part of a larger program on the part of easyJet to introduce new technologies for its fleet operations. Other aspects include the use of 3D augmented reality technology to allow engineers to interact with pilots or other engineers using virtual reality glasses to solve technical problems, the development of apps to deal with maintenance and operations issues, and the introduction of Toughpad tablets in the cockpit to make the aircraft “paperless.”