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Spotting Problems, Reducing Delays

UDRI Works to Speedily Spot Aircraft Problems, Reduce Delays

The University of Dayton Research Institute and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory are working to reduce the amount of time air travelers lose to mechanical delays.

Their goal is to create an automated structural health monitoring system that quickly identifies aircraft problems so planes can get off the ground faster. Mechanics would be able to remedy the problem more quickly and move on to additional tasks.

The system will be useful as a safety watchdog in the air to alert crew to problems and allow for quicker decisions about aborting or changing a flight.

“The objective of automated structural health monitoring is to detect damage in an aircraft’s structure. Our current research focuses on space vehicle heat panels, such as the space shuttle tiles,” said Steve Olson, UDRI’s principal investigator on the project. “Ideally, the structural health monitoring system’s information would be combined with information about the engines, electronics or flight controls to assess the overall health of an aircraft and appropriate maintenance can be scheduled, improving safety and reliability.”

According to Olson, a visual examination for cracks, bolt failures or impact damage could take weeks. This system would use sensors to examine changes in vibration that flag potential trouble spots in minutes. “If there is a problem with ‘wing panel No. 6,’ then the system will let you know, rather than walking around trying to look for it,” Olson said.

Olson said there could be a crack below a heat panel that is nearly impossible to see with the naked eye during flight. Detecting such a problem with an automated system may allow controllers to either change the flight’s entry angle or repair any damage during flight.

In addition to commercial and military air vehicles, similar technology has been explored for use on bridges and offshore oil platforms. Other potential applications include cars or locomotives.  

Olson, who likens the system to a doctor checking for a broken bone, expects it will be several years before the system is ready for use.

July 13, 2005

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