Why easyJet is banking on VR, drones and 3D printing

When you book a flight with a company like easyJet, it's usually for one of two reasons: you want the cheapest tickets possible, or it's the only airline operator flying to your destination. Nobody chooses easyJet for their in-flight entertainment, or the drinks and nibbles that are available while you're thousands of feet up in the air. But for the most part, that's okay. We're all looking for a deal, and provided the flight is on time and the seats aren't too uncomfortable, most of us are happy to forgo these luxuries in order to save some cash.

easyJet knows its business model well, and that's why it's exploring new technologies that can help with its day-to-day operations. These are projects that could make its commercial flights cheaper, more reliable and ultimately less stressful for customers. Some are designed for the public and clearly visible, but others are being developed behind closed doors to improve training, manufacturing and repairs. To explain some of its more experimental ideas, easyJet crammed them all into an aircraft hangar in Milan.

Training crew with VR

Design Q is a design consultancy firm specialising in plane and automotive interiors. It often works alongside Mediasphere, a small company based in Derby, which presents its work with 3D models, animations, Street View-style "pano-tours" and other visualisations. For a company like easyJet, these adaptations make it easier for management to visualise new designs that would otherwise be communicated with Powerpoints and concept art.

Recently, Mediasphere has been experimenting with virtual reality and the Oculus Rift. The team can take a company's CAD designs and then remodel them in Unreal's video game engine, visualising plane cabins that are both accurate and optimised for low-powered VR hardware. The hope is that such a technology can be used to accelerate the design and prototyping process. If the client can look at different seat designs in quick succession, it could be easier for them to pick out their preferred option. Furthermore, designers can retreat and quickly present new versions based on the client's feedback.

There are also plans to use VR as a way to train flight crew. Inside the hangar, the company has set up a physical mesh that aligns with their virtual model. For VR newcomers, these basic constructs -- which lets them touch and feel the tray table in front, or the ceiling above their seat -- should make it easier to navigate the plane. The idea would be to use the simulator to teach stewards about the location of onboard safety equipment. Instead of pulling a plane out of rotation and flying staff to an airport hangar, the training could be conducted in classrooms. It's not a perfect replacement, but it would help staff to familiarise themselves and speed up their learning when they finally step foot in the aircraft.

In the future, easyJet says it hopes to use VR for situational training too, which would allow staff to simulate differnt flight scenarios and practise interacting with passengers.

Printing plane parts

When someone mentions 3D printing, you normally think of the small, desktop printers made by Makerbot or Formlabs. But the recent growth in on-demand manufacturing goes far beyond the hobbyist crowd. Safran, a French multinational with almost 70,000 employees, is investing heavily in the technology to produce lighter and more efficient plane parts. Snecma, an aircraft and rocket engine manufacturer, as well as a Safran subsidiary, is working with GE Aviation on the Leading Edge Aviation Propulsion (LEAP) engine, which uses 19 3D-printed metal fuel nozzles. Thierry Thomas, VP of additive manufacturing at Safran, hopes that the design will be certified by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in early 2017. There's reason to be hopeful; in February, the FAA approved a GE Aviation-designed, 3D-printed component for its GE90 aircraft engines.

The benefits of the technique, known as "additive manufacturing," are numerous. The 3D-printed nozzle in the Leap engine, for example, replaces a part that's normally machined from 20 separate pieces. The ability to print "grow" the part as a complete, single unit makes it 25 percent lighter and could increase the engine's fuel efficiency. Thierry Thomas, VP of additive manufacturing at Safran, says the technique strips away the limitations of traditional manufacturing and gives designers greater freedom when pursuing new designs. It can also reduce waste. Instead of cutting into a huge slab of metal, much like a sculptor would, industrial 3D printers can build parts using only the required powder.

There are limitations to 3D printing, however. Some materials, such as aluminium and copper, are difficult to work with, and there's still a degree of uncertainty about the durability of 3D-printed parts. "It's like every new process; everyone is cautious," Thomas admits. Nevertheless, easyJet is interested in the technology and says it's talking to several firms, including Snecma, about whether 3D printing could be used to replace cabin parts, such as arm rests, tray tables and window blinds. In the future, the company hopes it can be used to quickly manufacture more significant parts for its aircraft.

The drone inspectors

easyJet has been interested in drones for some time now, but today it's closer than ever to putting them to work. The company is collaborating with drone manufacturer Blue Bear and imaging specialists Createc on an inspection system called RISER (Remote Intelligent Survey Equipment for Radiation). Using an onboard laser scanner, the drone is now able to autonomously map its surroundings and scour the exterior of the plane, looking for signs of damage. The real-time 3D mapping is possible using a process called LIDAR, which involves firing a laser in all directions and measuring the time it takes to reflect off other objects. Once it's built up a picture of the plane, the drone will automatically keep a pre-determined distance between itself and the hull, avoiding unwanted collisions.

An onboard camera can record the inspection and stream the footage back to engineers, reducing the time it takes to assess a damaged aircraft and begin repairs. Checks that would have taken a day could now be performed in a couple of hours, easyJet claims.

"Today, we use human beings," Ian Davies, easyJet's head of engineering says. "If you go outside you'll see stands, you'll see cherry-pickers. That takes time to position around the aircraft, and manoeuvre it from A to B. In fact, it takes many, many hours. The drone is more efficient and that gives us the efficiency then of using the humans to examine the high definition footage. We know exactly where we are, because we marry the images with a detailed wireframe image of the airplane. So we we know exactly where the drone is and exactly what it's looking at, and if we detect damage we can see it very clearly."

A laser scanner could also be packaged onto the drone to help it carry out inspections automatically. Davies believes the technology can be adapted so the drone can identify dents, holes and burn marks on the fuselage without the expertise of a human.

The operator recently completed its first drone trial at London's Luton airport and is now training its staff to operate them. The next stage of the company's research will be to optimise the drone's software and equipment so that it can work autonomously in designated aircraft hangars. easyJet's internal target is to have the drones operational in 10 of its engineering hangars across Europe by 2016, including Luton and Gatwick airport.

A rebuilt iOS app

All of these developments should help the operator to lower its costs and keep its aircraft running smoothly. But easyJet is also looking to improve its mobile apps -- especially its iPhone app, which has long needed a complete overhaul. A new version built for iOS 8 and iOS 9 will debut later this month with, the company boasts, a streamlined design that simplifies common passenger requests. On the home screen, it'll offer dynamic widgets that present information such as your current flight status, whether the aircraft is on time, and a calendar reminder for your next flight. Shortcuts will also allow you to quickly bypass the app's normal menu structure and quickly select a seat or book an extra bag.

easyJet says the widgets and cleaner design should make it faster and easier to use. It'll also incorporate Mobile Host, which easyJet launched in April as a means of guiding passengers through Gatwick airport. The feature uses Google's indoor mapping data to show the location of your check-in desk and departure gate, as well as how long it will take to get there and information about when you'll next need your boarding pass. Now, easyJet's mobile team is exploring how the feature can be improved with indoor positioning. GPS isn't reliable, especially indoors, so the company is considering Wi-Fi triangulation and beacon networks. Some airports such as Geneva have already deployed beacons, but obviously easyJet needs to persuade others to follow suit.

With indoor tracking, easyJet could know your whereabouts to within three metres and offer turn-by-turn directions throughout the airport. It's currently talking to Gatwick about a beacon network and says Mobile Host will be available in Milan's airport this summer.

easyJet is clearly focusing on the basics here. During a media Q&A session, Davies shrugged off a question about in-flight Wi-Fi, suggesting the company would only be interested once it was cheaper and connections had improved. Drones, virtual reality and 3D printing are attention-grabbing projects, but they also have clear, practical benefits for the company's everyday operations: accelerating aircraft repairs, training staff, and making replacement parts that are lighter and faster to produce. These sorts of improvements could make its airline more reliable and, if there are cost benefits, lead to cheaper ticket prices. It's not as fancy as, say, streaming Amazon Prime movies and TV shows in the sky -- but let's be honest, that's never been easyJet's style anyway.

[Image Credit: easyJet (top photo portraying a VR demo)]