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First use of small UAS for aircraft inspection saves time

When 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 Globemaster III March 6, it marked the second time the CTF used a small unmanned aerial system (sUAS) in a new application that shows promise.

The test involved flying the quadcopter at various distances from the C-17, which is on loan to Edwards for upgrades and testing from the 62nd Airlift Wing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.

This was the first time the ET CTF flew an sUAS on the flightline. Winds remained manageable and allowed the test team to conduct three sorties with the quadcopter, which was fitted with a video camera.

Live video was assessed by the team, including maintainers, to determine if the quality was adequate for routine inspections. In addition, 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. According to Maj. Dan Riley, ET CTF director, the test was so successful that the maintainers used the data to sign off their preflight external inspection, a first for the Air Force.

“This could save [maintainers] a lot of time,” said Staff Sgt. Joshua Jaburek, 62nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at 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) every few feet.”

Jaburek said inspections that would normally take 45 minutes to an hour could be done just in a few minutes with a quadcopter if it’s successful. Maintainers also would not need a lift to inspect a C-17’s tail.

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

Edited by Michael Jones


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