Handheld imaging tool expands aircraft inspection capability

  • Published
  • By Jeremy Gratsch
  • Air Force Research Laboratory Materials and Manufacturing Directorate
When pilots climb into the cockpit they expect their aircraft to perform as expected, regardless if take off is from a home or deployed location; but ensuring that the aircraft is healthy enough to fly has become a challenge for the Air Force.

Currently, the Air Force employs a large piece of support equipment to inspect the outer surface of an advanced aircraft to verify its health. The current technology weighs over 1,200 pounds, which creates the need for a more logistic-friendly equipment designed for field use.

In response, the Air Force Research Laboratory, through a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract managed as an Advanced Technology Demonstration Program, developed a first of its kind handheld imaging tool (HIT) that provides the Air Force with a portable, nondestructive method to inspect and verify aircraft health. The HIT consists of a handheld unit weighing less than 7 pounds attached to an 11-pound backpack that can image 100 percent of an aircraft's surface.

The HIT collects a larger amount of data with equal or better quality than the current baseline support equipment. For example, in one particular zone configuration, the HIT is able to image the entire zone within 15 minutes with one maintenance operator. The current equipment requires two operators and takes nearly three hours to accomplish the same task.

An on-aircraft test and demonstration at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, in late 2014, led to the culmination of the five-year research and development effort.

Joel Greenleaf, senior logistics subject matter expert for the F-35 Lightning II, said this is the most successful SBIR project he has been involved with in over 24 years.

"The AFRL team's unyielding cooperation ensures this premier expeditionary imaging capability didn't languish two or more years awaiting the standard requirements identification-to-contract execution that we frequently encounter,” he said. “I estimate AFRL's efforts will provide the F-35 warfighter with the HIT at a minimum of three years sooner than we expected."

As a testament to the final demonstration's success, the F-35 Joint Program Office requested that AFRL manage a low-rate initial production effort to harden, meet support equipment requirements, and produce the first six HIT systems.

The AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate develops materials, processes, and manufacturing improvements that enable advancements in Air Force technology. It also provides unique technical expertise critical to sustaining the current aircraft fleet.