EasyJet is trialling a number of new operational and maintenance-related initiatives aimed at eradicating by 2020 aircraft departure hold-ups caused by technical issues.

Seven out of 1,000 flights are delayed or cancelled due to technical issues such as component failures. But the plan is to reduce that number to zero by the end of the decade, head of engineering Ian Davies indicated during a media briefing at the UK budget carrier’s base at Luton airport on 7 May.

The airline is working together with Coptercraft – a UK specialist for remote-controlled helicopters used in film productions – as well as the Bristol Robotics Laboratory and also Measurement Solutions to test unmanned aerial vehicles for aircraft visual inspections. While a manually conducted visual inspection of a narrowbody can take as long as a day, the aim is to reduce that time to an hour, says Davies.

Exterior airframe inspections are necessary after events such as lightning strikes, which affect EasyJet’s 220-strong Airbus A320 fleet about 350 times a year, he says. Initially, EasyJet wants to use UAVs equipped with video cameras, but 3D scanning technology – which would detect surface deformations – is to be employed at a later stage.

The battery-powered multi-rotor UAVs could not only be used to inspect areas that are difficult to reach, such as the upper fuselage or empennage. But to map the entire outer surface and thus produce 3D virtual models of individual aircraft, says Arthur Richards, head of aerial robotics at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory.

As the UAVs should operate fully automatically, they require flight-control software to navigate around aircraft with an accuracy of 1mm. While this is relatively easy in a closed hangar, the software development becomes “very challenging” for operations in windy conditions on the apron, says Richards.

Regulatory restrictions around the use of UAVs in controlled airspace – as would be the case on airport ramps – is another major issue. Nevertheless, EasyJet wants to trial the UAVs “in the coming months” and introduce them for hangar use “as early as next year”, the airline says.

As it would be feasible to employ multiple UAVs during an inspection, the engineers are developing control software to avoid collisions and ensure that check areas are not scanned more than once during inspections, says Richards.

The objective is that the UAV could automatically conduct inspections at airports across the route network, and maintenance engineers can then assess any findings in the operations control centre at the airline’s base.

Greater process efficiency is also the rationale for the introduction of virtual-reality glasses for pilots and maintenance staff. The eyewear – which is connected to the airline’s IT network and projects information into the user’s field of vision – is to be become part of the onboard equipment across EasyJet’s fleet. It includes cameras to transmit real-time video images and hands-free mobile phone headsets to improve communications between crews in the field and the airline’s base.

Today, pilots and engineers are using mobile phones to query any technical issues and email photos to the operations control centre. With the virtual-reality glasses, however, the crew members will be able to transmit high-quality video footage in real time from across the airline’s network and thus improve fault diagnosis, EasyJet says. The carrier expects to start trialling the glasses by year-end.

An initial application will be “dent and buckle” software to manage structural damage on the aircraft’s surface. During walk-around checks, pilots and engineers can see previously recorded surface irregularities superimposed on their view of the aircraft’s exterior. This not only allows quick verification of whether or not a potential finding has already been recorded, but also registering of new information to keep technical records up to date.

The software is being tested on handheld devices – such as tablet computers and mobile phones – on a small number of Luton-based aircraft, says Stephen Crabb, director of Output42, which co-produced the program together with Iceland-based KPAL Aerospace Engineering. If the trial is successful, the system could be rolled out across the entire fleet within four to six months, he says.

Crabb adds that the glasses could be used for any damage reporting system: for example, to check interior equipment as well as placards and markings across the aircraft.

EasyJet is also planning to enhance its aircraft health monitoring system. The carrier has been using Airbus’s “Airman” maintenance analysis tool, which automatically alerts the operations centre of any system failures via the aircraft’s ACARS datalink. But the airline wants to add the “Wilco” internet-based software suite developed by Toulouse-based specialist FlightWatching to improve fault prognosis capability.

While the “Airman” system delivers fault messages from the aircraft to the ground when component performances deteriorate below certain levels, EasyJet says the new system allows its engineers to determine those thresholds themselves and thus monitor system performance more closely before components fail. As the “Wilco” system shows predicted run-times for aircraft equipment, engineers can replace components in question ahead of expected failures and in turn avoid AOG situations.

EasyJet is currently trialling the software with live data from a “small number” of aircraft, it says. Monitoring functions cover certain selected equipment, such as the bleed system and APU. But that range could be expanded to include the air conditioning system and landing gear, says FlightWatching.

Source: Cirium Dashboard