Northwest Military Blogs: McChord Flightline Chatter

March 16, 2017 at 8:46am

USAF uses first drone for C-17 post flight inspection

The 412th Test Wing’s Emerging Technologies Combined Test Force conducted a test with a quadcopter to see how well it can conduct a maintenance inspection of the exterior of a C-17 Globemaster III March 6. Photo credit: Kenji Thuloweit

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The 412th Test Wing's Emerging Technologies Combined Test Force used a quadcopter to conduct a maintenance inspection of the exterior of a C-17 Globemaster III on loan from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, at Edwards Air Force Base, California, March 6.

It was the first time the ET CTF flew an sUAS on the flightline and the second time the CTF has used a small unmanned aerial system in a new application that shows promise.

The 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. 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.

Maj. Dan Riley, ET CTF director said, 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 JBLM. "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."

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, Jaburek said.

Capt. Justin Merrick, ET CTF lead engineer said, the CTF got the idea from seeing a video online showing a commercial airline company using an 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," said Merrick.

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

"Another reason we've conducted this test is to open the aperture on flying an sUAS near the airfield, which has been frowned upon in the past," said Riley.  "As we execute these missions it establishes a baseline for how operations can be conducted safely, not only here at Edwards, but at other bases as well. We couldn't have accomplished what we have so far without the support of the 412th Operations Group and test wing commander in breaking down some of the barriers to these types of operations."

Riley said the CTF is looking at a variety of other missions in the near future such as roof inspections, airfield inspections and environmental-concern area inspections.

In February, the newly formed ET CTF began testing a quadcopter to determine if it was possible to use the sUAS to calibrate the 412th Range Squadron's telemetry antennas on base. Those tests also yielded positive results.

The Emerging Technologies CTF was officially activated last July and its mission is to provide agile, innovative flight test capabilities for emerging technologies and to explore the Air Force warfighting capabilities of tomorrow. Current focuses are on the use of small unmanned aerial systems for testing and operational use, and on autonomous systems' development and use.

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