[Avionics Today 01-21-2015] Airlines may soon have the ability to start performing aircraft recovery and inspection checks with Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). EasyJet is currently working with several partners to make this a reality; the U.K.-based airline isn't looking to replace its aircraft engineers with machines, but rather to make their jobs safer.
A CopterCraft UAS inspecting an EasyJet Airbus commercial jet. Photo: EasyJet.
In May 2014, EasyJet announced it was working with UAS manufacturer Coptercraft, Measurement Solutions and Bristol Robotics Laboratory to use unmanned aircraft to scan and assess its fleet of Airbus aircraft. The UAS would then report observed damage back to engineers and specialists. At the time, the partnership demonstrated an aircraft inspection using a human-operated UAS, but the ultimate goal is for UAS to monitor aircraft health autonomously, with an engineer using the captured images to make a better overall visual assessment of damage to the aircraft.
"The announcement last year was preliminary," Gary Smith, head of power plant and fleet transition at EasyJet told Avionics Magazine. "In the last seven months we’ve buckled down on actually doing engineering and research and development work and thinking about how we might do the aircraft inspections and also developed a roadmap about how much we do at any given time. As an example, you’ve got to get an inspection device, whether that be a camera or some kind of scanner, to the airplane in the right locations.”
One of the biggest benefits of using UAS for aircraft inspections is safety. According to Smith, EasyJet's original decision to pursue the use of this technology was specifically to use the UAS to assess damage resulting from weather hazards that occur during commercial flights.
"If you get a lightning strike — and this happens very often for us — that goes down the aircraft. The nature of a lightning strike is that you get multiple small damage sites on the aircraft — burns and that type of stuff. … Inspecting that is quite a lengthy manual process," said Smith. "The idea here would be you bring the aircraft into a hangar, the engineer would effectively set the drone off and there’d be some oversight, but leave the drone to capture images of the whole airplane and that would allow the engineer to then assess that damage much more quickly and effectively."
Last summer, a skilled CopterCraft UAS pilot demonstrated the ability of a small quad rotor-powered UAS to scan and assess damage to A320 engines, fuselage and wings. However, EasyJet and CopterCraft are working with Bristol Robotics to create an operation where the UAS would autonomously follow the same visual inspection route around an aircraft as a human, and then present the visual images of the damaged areas of the aircraft to an engineer who would make decisions about repairs and restoring the airworthiness of the airframe.
Arthur Richards, deputy director of the Bristol Robotics Lab, said the team is looking to launch another demonstration within the next six to eight months that would showcase the ability of a UAS to perform the inspection with little to no human control over its navigation.
"We're working on the algorithms for making it possible to do this in an automated way," Richards told Avionics Magazine. "The rationale is that you could do a lot of this at the moment but you’d need a highly skilled pilot to make it work. What we’re interested in doing is converting that to be able to be done with a much lower skill level so it can be done with existing maintenance staff being the drone users without having to become expert pilots as well."
Richards said the development team is looking to perform a more advanced demonstration of the aircraft inspection technology within the next six months, but the actual autonomous usage of the UAS to perform the inspections is probably closer to at least 18 months from becoming a reality. EasyJet's team of engineers has been collaborating with Bristol Robotics to show them how the visual inspections are currently occurring manually.
"We think there would still be an operator; I would stop short of calling this person a pilot though. Being a pilot implies that you’ve got an awful lot of skills pertaining to just keeping the thing in the air doing what you want it to do," said Richards. "We envisage that there would be a control panel with say six buttons on it and you would press the button for the job that you wanted it to do next. Up, down, stop, scan, and it would do the rest. It’s not completely autonomous; we’re not talking about no people in the hangar at all, but you wouldn’t need as much skill as a pilot does at the moment."
The research and development that EasyJet, CopterCraft and Bristol Robotics Laboratory are currently focused on would occur in an aircraft hangar. Eventually, they want to see how this would work within an open airport environment, which is why EasyJet is working closely with the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) on the regulatory aspect of their proposed operation.
Regardless of the regulations, when EasyJet and, potentially, other airlines are able to start using UAS for inspections, it will be a major upgrade over the current manual process that the airline's engineers use to assess damage from lightning strikes, hail and more.
"If a guy walks up to an airplane as he does today and does a visual inspection, he might be keeping or writing notes about what he spans. But you actually have no visual record of that, potentially, and there’s no requirement to keep a visual record of everything," said Smith. "With this type of operation we would have a visual measurement or record of everything that we do, which is actually a benefit over what we do today."