A future fight against China will likely involve a network of bases spread out across small islands in the Pacific–a potential logistics nightmare. To prepare, the Air Force is working with Boeing on drones, AI, and augmented reality–empowered by 5G–that can make some basic maintenance tasks faster and less complicated.
At Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, members of the Air Force’s 15th Maintenance Group at last May tested a new way to perform maintenance tasks: using autonomous drones for routine aircraft inspections of aircraft, to look for things like corrosion, damaged rivets, etc.. and inform maintainers. That could drastically cut down on the time and complexity of inspections.
The drones could drastically cut down on the time and complexity of inspections–inspecting just the tail of a C-17 can take six hours, Scott Belanger, who works product support for Boeing Global Services, told reporters Tuesday.
“This includes gathering everyone, looking for all lifts, giving safety instructions, wearing the harness, using the helmet and realizing that the lift does not work. I mean, there’s just a whole process,” He said. And that timeline assumes the service doesn’t have to fly an inspector from another location.
Boeing’s early experiments in autonomous aircraft inspection show that an autonomous drone flying around the aircraft, finding trouble spots using image recognition artificial intelligence, and then pinging a human maintainer elsewhere to verify findings cuts the overall time down considerably: a routine inspection can be as short as 30 minutes.
Autonomous inspections would also give the Air Force a more up-to-date digital database of maintenance issues service-wide, which could help the force better predict where to station materials and maintainers in the future.
“You’ll be able to just pull up a tail number, click on, anywhere on that 3D model of that aircraft, and be able to see a history of images of that exact part you clicked on from anywhere in the world over the life of the aircraft,” explained Alli Locher, a Boeing senior product manager.
According to first tests, a drone that works with humans can also be more accurate than an inspector who is alone. The Autonomous Aircraft Inspection system has an accuracy rate of about 70 percent; for humans alone, the accuracy is closer to 50 percent. And Boeing believes the system’s accuracy will improve over time, as maintenance experts use it more and tag more data.
A separate Boeing experimental effort to use 5G for maintenance tasks, dubbed ATOM, uses the Microsoft Hololens virtual reality headset to give maintenance crews visual cues to address problems and let other, more experienced technicians in other locations see what the technician is seeing.
So how much does virtual reality actually improve technician proficiency? Would it be possible to take a non-trained pilot off the flight line, place them in virtual reality, and make them a better technician? (rather then fly in one from somewhere else)
Belanger said, “I believe we are working with the client right now to create that data.”
But this is what he hopes, he added.
“Specifically, the Air Force has a skill level code of three, seven and nine. Can you put a maintainer with a level three on an island in the Pacific, and then… use an ATOM headset to walk them through basic tasks an engine would perform? I firmly believe, as a 25-year maintainer, the answer is yes. This will work…We’ll go from a zero-capability–i.e. we’re having to fly will a whole nother C-17 out there with the right technician that may take 12 hours to get there–to: you can have an introductory-level maintenance conversation to make sure that when the follow-on augment crew does arrive, they’ve got the right tools. They’ve got the right equipment, the right skill set, and thus they can get to work immediately.”
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