Low cost airline easyJet has successfully completed an automated drone inspection of one of its aircraft.
According to easyJet, the tests indicate that pre-programmed drones can help cut the amount of time an aircraft is out of service following events such as lightning strikes or hailstorms compared to manual inspection that involves the use of gantry and staging.
Furthermore, such events can take an aircraft out of service for half a day or longer at locations away from a maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) facility where an engineer is not always available.
The system, which easyJet aims to bring into service in its engineering bases across Europe within 12 months, would relay information about the condition of an aircraft to engineers, who would then interpret the data and take appropriate action.
For the trial, Blue Bear and Createc’s RISER quadcopter was used in conjunction with a T-Series tracking system from Vicon, which assisted in referencing the location of the quadcopter relative to the aircraft in 3D.
Warren Lester, product manager, Vicon explained that Blue Bird has implemented certain technologies on its drone to help with navigation such as LIDAR and a camera in order to automatically navigate without any external tracking system.
“But those technologies are nowhere near as precise, and sometimes quite inaccurate,” he said. “What they’re trying to do is to improve the quality of data that they get from those systems by comparing it to something that is very precise and reliable like a Vicon tracking system.”
Tests at Luton Airport required Vicon to track the drone flying around an A320 aircraft.
Lester said: “We captured some data that we sent to Blue Bear so they could then validate the information they were getting from on-board sensors in order to measure the efficiency by which they could track [the quadcopter’s position] in space.
“We had a set of 9 T-Series cameras looking at approximately 1” retro-reflective markers placed on what is quite a large quadcopter and we could measure the position and orientation down to a millimetre as it was moving alongside one side of the fuselage, between the nose cone to the leading edge of the wing.”
Lester added that the cameras were positioned on tripods spaced 10 to 15 metres from the aircraft in a semicircle around the area the drone was measured in.
“Ultimately, if we were to deploy a system in a location like that we would choose to permanently mount the cameras on the walls with a different set of lenses to get a more focussed view of the area we’re interested in,” said Lester.
The drone announcement was made on June 4, 2015 during a pan-European event at Milan Malpensa, the airline’s second largest base after London Gatwick. During the event the company also announced that it is investigating 3D printing to produce replacement aircraft parts, and that it is collaborating with Airbus on inflight telemetry that predicts technical issues before they occur to minimise delays.