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easy does it

Though synonymous with low fares and cheap travel, easyJet is on the cutting edge when it comes to utilising modern technology to revolutionise their business model, as George Marsh discovers

Low-cost carrier easyJet prides itself as an innovator, adopting technologies that contribute to safety, efficiency and reduced operating costs. MRO Management has previously alluded, for example, to the airline’s active interest in: nano-coatings to promote fuel-saving laminar flow over aerodynamic surfaces; green taxying alternatives to main engine use; and systems for detecting volcanic ash in the air.


There is a strong emphasis on MRO-related initiatives. The airline believes it has identified technologies that can accelerate MRO processes so that its fleet of A320 Family aircraft can be kept in the air, earning revenue for longer, rather than undergoing unscheduled maintenance on the ground.


One initiative that has been high profile in the media recently is the airline’s work with UAS (unmanned aerial systems) designer, Blue Bear Systems Research, and avionics software specialist Createc. The three companies came together to test the ability of a mini-UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) to inspect the exterior of an aircraft faster and more effectively than human inspectors can.


The programme is about minimising the time needed to inspect an aircraft after an untoward event, such as a hail storm or lightning strike. The latter eventuality, though infrequent – with perhaps an average of one strike per year for a commercial aircraft – can disrupt onboard systems and cause structural damage, while even a suspected strike means the aircraft has to be grounded while inspectors examine the exterior for the tell-tale signs, like burn marks or small holes. This manual process can keep an aircraft out of service for a full day, while the inspection after a flight through a hail storm can take as much as three or four days.


However, thanks to remarkable advances in miniaturising air vehicles, sensors and computing, there exist today remotely piloted platforms that are small, capable and affordable enough to be used for remote inspection purposes. One such ‘mini-drone’ is the RISER (Remote Intelligent Survey Equipment for Radiation) quadcopter developed by Blue Bear and Createc. Originally designed for gamma radiation detection, it has proved adaptable to other inspection roles too.


Project RISER emerged from a nine month collaboration by Blue Bear, Bristol University and Createc which was funded by the UK’s Technology Strategy Board, and included a live demonstration at the National Physical Laboratory. Blue Bear developed the vehicle and the SNAP flight control system which allows it to hover and manoeuvre in complex industrial environments. Createc, meanwhile, was responsible for the mission software.


The quadcopter that carries the sensor payload resembles a flat frame, about four feet square, that is powered by four integral electrically driven twin-blade ducted rotors. The rotors provide vertical lift and, when differentially driven, tilt the platform so that it moves horizontally in the direction of inclination. The weight of the system, with payload, is approximately 20kg.


A version developed in collaboration with easyJet uses electro-optical sensors to find anomalies in the external structures of the aircraft, potentially as small as 1mm in extent. Although in the present stage of development the UAS is controlled by a human pilot with a remote control, the intention is that it will ultimately be programmable so that it can scan an aircraft autonomously. A dual infra-red laser sensor ensures that the platform maintains a separation of at least 1m from the inspected aircraft at all times, while an onboard mapping system will geo-fence operations, ensuring that the flight takes place within a set boundary. RISER also has a collision avoidance feature that causes it to redirect if something enters its immediate flight path.  According to Yoge Patel, Chief Executive of Blue Bear Systems, “The UAV is very self aware and knows to a high precision where it is. In this case the collision avoidance feature is keeping it away from people.”  >>

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