The U.S. Air Force has announced that it has tested a drone program for an autonomous aircraft inspection project.
A groundbreaking drone program has been successfully tested at Dover Air Force Base, offering a safer and more efficient method for inspecting the towering T-tail of a C-5 M Super Galaxy aircraft, which reaches a height of 65 feet.
The program, a collaborative effort between Team Dover and a civilian aviation company, aims to revolutionize aircraft inspection by introducing autonomous drones. During the tests conducted from January 22 to 24, 2024, the drone was tasked with mapping out a predefined flight path around the aircraft, capturing numerous high-resolution photographs in the process.
Ken Jones, 436th Mission Generation Group process improvement and innovation manager, explained the efficiency of the program: “There are 34 points of interest, and that information is fed automatically back into another system within 10 seconds. The idea is to keep us from having to put Airmen in harm’s way up on the wings and tail.”
Not only does the program enhance safety by eliminating the need for personnel to conduct manual inspections, which can be difficult and time-consuming, but it also significantly reduces inspection time. Traditional inspections that require personnel to use harnesses can take hours, while the drone completed its task in a mere 10 minutes.
Furthermore, the drone program offers the advantage of archival data, enabling maintainers to store inspection results and compare them over the years. This proactive approach allows potential issues to be identified and addressed before they become major problems.
David Murphy, a senior test pilot for Near Earth Autonomy, highlighted the challenge posed by the C-5 aircraft, which was a new addition to their drone inspection repertoire. “The challenge with the C-5 is building a new computer-aided design model,” he said. “Getting the model loaded into the system is a tricky process.”
Despite these initial challenges, the innovative drone program holds great promise for the aircraft maintenance field. Dover Air Force Base, renowned for its commitment to finding better and safer ways of doing things, proves to be the ideal testing ground for this groundbreaking technology.
“We’re always looking for the best way to do things here,” Jones noted. “It’s a win-win situation to be able to do it better and safer.”