Budget airline easyJet is testing automated drones to perform safety inspections of grounded aircraft following incidents such as lightning or bird strike. Matthew Stock reports.
Automated drones could soon be carrying out aerial analysis of grounded aircraft. Budget airline carrier easyJet is trialling drones which scan a plane's body to spot problems faster than manual inspection. Each pre-programmed drone will be fitted with high-res 4k cameras and a set of sensors based on LiDAR technology. These fire thousands of laser pulses a second to measure their surroundings in minute detail. The technology will deliver a fast, safe, prognosis of the aircraft, says easyJet's Mark Bunting. (SOUNDBITE) (English) MARK BUNTING, PROJECT MANAGER FOR EASYJET, SAYING: "So 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 lightning strikes and bird strikes." EasyJet says the automated technology could cut the time planes are out of use from days to hours; with plans to roll out the system within 12 months. The airline hopes to introduce 3D printing to quickly replace basic cabin parts, such as arm rests and folding tables. But 3D printing will also be part of the next generation engines it has ordered for its new Airbus fleet. The more fuel-efficient LEAP 1-A engine will feature 3D printed metal parts including fuel nozzles and carbon filter fan blades. These new engines are vital for easyJet's future as a cost-saving airline, says Head of engineering Ian Davies. (SOUNDBITE) (English) IAN DAVIES, HEAD OF ENGINEERING, EASYJET, SAYING: "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 our new engine." A virtual reality system - that uses Oculus's VR headset - is also in the pipeline to help train airline crew. And a new app for the iPhone and Apple Watch aims to make travel easier for the airline's 66 million annual passengers.