At Last - an aircraft that can tell the Doctor where it hurts!
Warton, UK - A system of smart sensors that can automatically inspect structures for damage, potentially saving millions in servicing and support costs, has made its first flight on a BAE Systems Hawk.
The flight trial has demonstrated for the first time, the operation of a fully integrated automated damage detection system within a flight environment. This is an important step towards the eventual goal of self-inspecting aircraft.
Led by BAE Systems, the Advanced Structural Health Monitoring System (AHMOS) is being developed as part of a European Research and Development funded initiative.
Structural inspection is a significant factor in the cost of supporting fleets of both military and commercial aircraft. In-service lives of 40 years or more are now expected and, as the aircraft age, the servicing needed to maintain stringent air-worthiness standards becomes ever more costly.
Jim McFeat, AHMOS Technical Manager at BAE Systems, said: “The new system aims to avoid lengthy and expensive structural inspections that require the repeated dismantling of large sections of aircraft. Very often such inspections are precautionary and no faults that need repairing are found.”
During flight testing, the ’acoustic emission detection’ kit housed in a self-contained pod attached to the underside of the Hawk, was able to pinpoint cracks in specifically designed dummy structures and download a diagnosis when the aircraft landed.
Jim McFeat added: “Using a combination of strain gauge sensors and fibre optic cables connected to a computer, and contained within an aerodynamic pod under from the fuselage of the Hawk, we have now demonstrated the technology works.”
“We have been able to compare all of the aircraft’s manoeuvres in flight with the pilot’s notes and our own computer, and in the two flights so far undertaken, we have had good results. We have three other flights planned before we issue our formal report in early 2008. Ultimately, we are trying to automate the non-destructive testing process in the same way that car manufacturers have done for engine management systems. The customer will plug a computer into a data-box on the aircraft and download in-flight information gathered from gauges and sensors at strategic points”.
If sensors fitted deep inside the aircraft structure can reliably detect the onset of damage, the need to dismantle sections of the airframe will be considerably reduced. The new detection process can be performed remotely; at the press of a button or even automatically on-line. It is estimated that this could save many millions of pounds over the lifetime of a fleet.
According to Jim McFeat “Engineers are just beginning to realise the potential value of this type of structural monitoring. Aircraft are expensive assets and their owners are pushing to get the maximum possible use from them. Any technology that can help deliver more cost effective operations or increased availability is bound to be welcome.”
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