Drone inspectors: UK airline easyJet looks to tech to cut costs

Virgin's the kind of brand we're not shocked to see playing with the latest tech -- after all, Richard Branson's got a space plane. Experiments with Google Glass, smartwatches and iBeacon for Virgin have all focused on boosting customer experience, as long as you're in Upper Class, anyway. European airline easyJet, however, is known for its no-frills, low-cost approach, which is why we're curious to see the company investing in an "innovation" arm that looks at how new technologies can be applied to aviation, with no immediate return. easyJet sees it differently, though, as the long-term goal is to save money by reducing technical delays, or hopefully avoiding them all together. This has a knock-on effect of improving customer service by minimizing disruptions, of course, but make no mistake: easyJet's motivated to explore emerging tech because a grounded plane might as well be a money pit.

easyJet envisions reducing aircraft downtime in a number of ways, the simplest (on paper) being better software. In this area, the airline's testing a system that monitors its fleet in real time, and schedules part replacements before they fail, as well as looking at mobile apps that also take the hassle out of identifying and ordering the right parts. The main issue for easyJet, really, is when a plane is struck by lightning or suffers some other event that might've caused damage, and it needs meticulous inspection before returning to active duty. We're told it can take up to a day for engineers to OK a plane, and it's this lost time that easyJet is trying to cut dramatically by using a much smaller kind of aircraft: the drone.

Though the airline admittedly has no real idea of when it could deploy drones in support of its engineers, the pipe dream sees UAVs shrinking lengthy inspection times to little more than an hour. Instead of making engineers climb about the aircraft in search of damage, the thinking is drones could help get at hard-to-reach places quickly. While laser scanning and 3D modeling could be part of a drone's job in the future, easyJet's still just working on making sure camera quality is as good as it can be. The airline's working with drone-builders CopterCraft and the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (UK) to perform proof-of-concept studies, with the latter even looking into autonomous scanning, multi-drone setups to divide workload and particularly outdoor flight in turbulent environments.

All aircraft maintenance is managed from a command center next to London's Luton Airport, and the hope is that drone imagery and scans can enhance communication and data availability with engineers on the ground. Not limited to just drones, easyJet's also testing hand-held and head-mounted cameras, as well as portable 3D scanners for relaying information back to base. AR headwear from the likes of Epson and Vuzix could also feed information the other way, giving engineers a heads-up as to where an issue might be found. Most of these applications are a long way from formal introduction, but some tech is set to save easyJet money right now. By the end of the month, the 25kg of flight manuals and other paperwork its planes lug around will be replaced by Panasonic's rugged Toughpad tablets. And, according to easyJet, one kilo costs it $20,000 each year. In an effort to make truly paper-free planes, Sony's large e-paper slates are also expected to substitute in for the plethora of forms the crew must fill out for each flight.

easyJet considers all these projects investments, and ones that will eventually pay off. It's not concerned with other airline's riffing of the ideas, either, and in some respects hopes to be a leader in assessing new technologies for their potential in aviation. Most of all though, easyJet wants its planes in the air as much as possible, getting you on your way and making dollars in the process.

Sharif Sakr contributed to this report.