Recently, airline operator Easyjet made the headlines for its plans to have drones actively inspecting aircraft for damage in ten of its engineering hangars across Europe by the end of 2016.
Analysis by these self-controlled inspection drones is expected to help cut the amount of time an aircraft is out of service following events such as lightning strikes or hailstorms compared to the man-hours required for manual inspection.
According to Boeing, lightning strikes a commercial aircraft on average once a year, this rate is frequent enough for a lightning strike to be considered almost inevitable. For every hour an aircraft is out of service the cost to the airline run’s into tens of thousands of pounds, even before the repair is carried out.
By automating, speeding up and increasing the effectiveness of the inspection process, there is potential to create significant savings, some of which can be passed down travellers.
However, there’s still a snag: the UAV technology isn’t quite there yet.
Earlier this year Easyjet began testing at Luton Airport with one of its A320 aircraft, deploying Blue Bear and Createc’s Riser quadcopter, which was monitored by Vicon T160 motion capture cameras.
The Vicon T-Series system provided the engineering team with precise and reliable real-time positioning feedback that could allow them to validate the data produced by the quadcopter in order to measure its efficiency.
Although much as the story is about the ability of the drones to help automate data collection, it’s the recording and monitoring the positioning of the UAVs (which currently have no means of doing this accurately themselves) as well as aiding their navigation and spacial awareness that proves the key factor.
“The quadcopter has both video and LIDAR on board. The LIDAR is used mainly for navigation – one of the things Blue Bear were trying to prove worthy with the Vicon tracking,” explains Vicon engineering product manager Warren Lester.
“This produces 3D imagery, but is not used for analysis but rather for building up a 3D map around which the quad can move, and work out where it is. The video camera is a relatively high resolution and is used to assess damage.”
Currently the assessment of damage is manual with the user referring to the drone’s video and picking out any signs of damage. The aim is to increase the automation of the system, to one where it highlights sections where the drone scanning the aircraft thinks damage might exist.
For now there’s still a team of fleshy humans sat viewing streamed footage, which is still faster than manually scrambling up ladders and platforms. However, with time and refinement, hopefully the system can be further streamlined with technology – not only to self assess its feedback, but to have a mode customised tracking and control set up.
Ian Davies, easyJet’s head of engineering, commented: “The use of these emerging technologies frees up our engineering and digital teams to enable them to undertake more skilled tasks, keeping our costs down which in turn keeps our fares low, helps minimise delays and ensures that we maintain our industry leading punctuality for our passengers.”
At the cutting edge of the motion capture industry, Vicon cameras are used in movies and engineering alike. We took a visit to its Oxford base to check out the company’s lean R&D process.