By Dario Leone
Mar 13 2017
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The use of a drone is expected to help cut the inspection time from 45 minutes to an hour to just minutes

On Mar. 6, 2017 over at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB), the 412th Test Wing’s Emerging Technologies Combined Test Force (CTF) used a quadcopter to conduct a maintenance inspection of the exterior of a C-17 on loan from Joint Base Lewis-McCord, Washington.

Noteworthy as explained by Kenji Thuloweit, 412th Test Wing Public Affairs in his article AF uses first drone for C-17 post flight inspection, this was the first time the CTF flew a small unmanned aerial system (sUAS) on the flightline.

Given that the sUAS was fitted with a video camera a live video was assessed by the team that included maintainers, to determine if the quality was adequate for routine inspections. The video recorded from the quadcopter’s camera will be analyzed to see if it is clear enough to see smaller details of the cargo plane’s exterior such as structural abnormalities, rivets and cracks.

The winds remained manageable and allowed the test team to conduct three sorties which have been so successful that the ground crew sign off their preflight external inspection of the aircraft, a first for the Air Force as pointed out by Maj. Dan Riley, the CTF director.

“This could save (maintainers) a lot of time,” said Staff Sgt. Joshua Jaburek, 62nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at JB Lewis-McChord. “When we go on top of the airplane, we can only walk on certain parts and then we have to hook and unhook our (safety harness) very few feet.”

Actually the use of a drone is expected to help cut the inspection time from 45 minutes to an hour to just minutes.

Maintainers also would not need a lift to inspect a C-17’s tail, Jaburek said.

Capt. Justin Merrick, a CTF lead engineer said, the CTF got the idea from seeing a video online showing a commercial airline company using a sUAS to inspect a plane.

“(Leadership) encourages us to go out and conduct tests, so after we saw some videos online we contacted some maintainers here and they were very enthusiastic to help out,” Merrick explained.

The 412th Test Wing’s Emerging Technologies Combined Test Force conducted three test sorties March 6, 2017, at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., using a quadcopter to inspect a C-17 Globemaster III. Maj. Dan Riley, the CTF director, and Maj. William Niblack, the CTF operations officer, piloted the small unmanned aerial system.

Riley added that this first test on the flightline could pave the way for future sUAS tests and test procedures.

The CTF, that was activated in Jul. 2016, is aimed to deliver agile, innovative flight test capabilities for emerging technologies and to explore the U.S. Air Force (USAF) warfighting capabilities of tomorrow, is looking to use small unmanned aerial systems to perform a variety of other missions in the near future such as roof inspections, airfield inspections and environmental-concern area inspections.

In the last few decades, small unmanned aerial systems have been used for many applications. The need for aircraft with greater maneuverability and hovering ability has led to a rise in quadcopter research. The four-rotor design allows quadcopters to be relatively simple in design yet highly reliable and maneuverable. Research is continuing to increase the abilities of quadcopters by making advances in multi-craft communication, environment exploration, and maneuverability. If these developing qualities can be combined, quadcopters would be capable of advanced autonomous missions that are currently not possible with other vehicles.

Photo credit: Kenji Thuloweit / U.S. Air Force

Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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