U.S. Air Force Evaluates Quadcopter for Aircraft Inspections

U.S. Air Force testers fly 3DR Solo
Testers with the 412th Test Wing at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., use a quadcopter to inspect a C-17. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

The U.S. Air Force is evaluating the use of small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) for aircraft maintenance inspections and other tasks. A new emerging technologies combined test force (CTF) of the 412th Test Wing at Edwards Air Force Base, California, has demonstrated small drone applications twice in the past two months, the service said on March 9.

In the most recent demonstration earlier this month, testers used a 3DR Solo quadcopter fitted with a video camera to inspect the exterior of a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III cargo jet on loan from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. The test team, which included maintainers, conducted three sorties with the drone to determine if the quality of its video was adequate for routine inspections and clear enough to see smaller details of the exterior such as structural abnormalities, rivets and cracks.

It was the first time the CTF flew a small unmanned aerial system on the flight line and the second time the CTFhas used a sUAS in a new application that shows promise,” the Air Force said.

In February, the CTF started testing a quadcopter to determine if a drone can be used to calibrate the 412th Range Squadron’s telemetry antennas on the base. Those tests also produced positive results, according to the Air Force. The service is also considering using drones for roof inspections, airfield inspections and “environmental-concern area” inspections.

Aircraft inspections that normally take 45 minutes to an hour could be done in a few minutes with a quadcopter; in the case of the C-17 a drone would spare maintainers using a lift to inspect its tail. Maintainers at Edwards AFB were able to use the drone’s video to sign off their preflight external inspection—an Air Force first—said Maj. Dan Riley, CTF director.

Another reason we’ve conducted this test is to open the aperture on flying a sUAS near the airfield, which has been frowned upon in the past,” Riley said. “[Executing] these missions establishes a baseline for how operations can be conducted safely, not only here at Edwards, but at other bases as well.”