Inspector Gadget

We all understand that drones and aircraft don’t mix. ROBIN EVANS witnesses an innovative collaboration of both, for accelerating damage assessment and aircraft recovery.

The hangar is busy but among the buzz of tools and engineers there’s a different sound. A drone appears, steadily working around a fuselage. Nobody pays any notice, their industry continuing unabated. There is no pilot visible but, as the drone lands, survey data is already being scrutinised. It could be a vision from an airport of the future but it’s December 2017 at Stansted. The aircraft is A319 G-EZFH, recently returned from Reykjavik and scheduled for major winter servicing. This is a perfect opportunity for the latest trial of the drone, a heavily modified DJI Matrice.

Pressurised Environment

At summer peak, easyJet will operate nearly 2,000 flights daily, 284 aircraft flying from 0600-0200. All routine maintenance is performed in a brief, overnight window with bigger tasks scheduled over winter. Maintenance is also unscheduled. Aircraft accumulate occasional dents and scrapes around cabin doors and cargo hatches, rubbed daily by airbridges, steps and loading equipment. Any birdstrikes, hailstone damage or lightning strikes (in the lightning strike case alone, an aircraft is typically struck twice yearly) can cause visible dents and burns.

All need assessment and logging for treatment, according to severity and location, before the aircraft can be returned to service. Much is cosmetic but nothing is left to chance. The fallout can be extensive – and expensive – for all parties, particularly if occurring at remote destinations without engineering cover. This is the job of the Maintenance Operations Centre (MOC) working around both clock and continent to co-ordinate staffing, tooling and minimise aircraft downtime. They work to a key performance indicator (KPI) of downtime hours prior to ‘wheels up’.

Before every flight or service, pilots and engineers will walk a circuit of the aircraft looking for external damage: what the latter call a General Visual Inspection (GVI). A GVI of the lower fuselage can be completed quickly on foot, but the upper is very different. This requires a crew roped into a cherry picker, inching along the fuselage. Could the aircraft be surveyed more quicker? How to quantify and prioritise unexpected damage over such a large fleet? How to ensure the safety of your staff in wintry conditions atop a 12m tail? What if they cause additional, accidental damage?

It was these questions that prompted easyJet and Blue Bear Systems Research, a world leader in Unmanned Air Systems research and development, to collaborate. They believe that instead of eight hours currently, a GVI by drone could be achieved inside two. ‘The aim is quick, reliable and consistent damage mapping to accelerate AOG recovery’ explains easyJet Avionics Fleet Technical Management Engineer and drone enthusiast Rupert Harvey-Lee. Gavin Goudie, Blue Bear Operations Director adds: “Our intent has always been threefold – automation, simplification and no additional training burden to the client.”

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