The Air Force is making digital replicas of its aircraft to help make maintenance faster, more effective and to be able to forecast potential problems with its planes in the future.
Lt. Col. Joseph Lay, material leader for the B-1 Systems Engineering Branch, and his team have partnered with Wichita State University’s National Institute of Aviation Research, or NIAR, to digitally scan a B-1B Lancer.
Lay told Military Times on Friday the B-1 “digital twin” project will be the first time a complete scan has been performed on a military aircraft.
The process began when a B-1 was taken from the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, or AMARG, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona and sent to NIAR for a complete teardown. AMARG, affectionately known as “the Boneyard,” is where military planes go to retire. The desert site hosts hundreds of military planes and is as a testament to U.S. dominance of skies past.
“Which means every nut and bolt, all the skin panels are all coming off,” Lay said. “They’re going to do a complete inspection of the aircraft for us, looking for fatigue cracks.”
As a heavy aircraft flies, gravity and air turbulence make it feel its weight. Fatigue cracks form on stress points and grow under the load of the jostled plane.
“We want to find those fatigue cracks and how they’re growing and why they’re growing and prevent them and how we can repair them if we need to,” Lay said.
Making a digital twin is an opportunity to get inside of a jet and see all of the internal parts not exposed during regular maintenance.
“This will allow us access to areas we’ve never looked at before,” Lay said.
The inspection phase began in April and once completed, the B-1 will undergo the digital scanning phase, which can take up to an estimated six years.
The digital scanning
Every component of the B-1 will be painstakingly scanned using laser equipment which triangulates its position on the part to create a digital copy that can then be turned into a 3D model.
“It creates a digital representation on a computer and then a technician runs a verification against it to make sure that all the points have been scanned and there’s enough data,” Lay said. “And then they can take that and turn it into the solid model for manufacturing.”
Starting at the top of the B-1, the technicians will scan and peel away layers of the plane, then scan again. Rinse and repeat.
“It’s a long process,” Lay said. "So, they’re scanning as they go along because we want to make sure we understand how everything is stacked up and put together. …
Once finished, the Air Force will have a complete digital clone of the B-1 it can use to make predictions about damage the jet could potentially sustain in different scenarios.
“It can fly right along with the fleet, so we can actually take real-world data and put it into our digital model and see what’s going on in our fleet as a whole,” Lay said. “And so what that does for us is allows us to fly ahead of the fleet in the digital environment. I can simulate more hours on that aircraft without ever breaking one and I can see what’s going to happen in the future.”
The modeling will allow the Air Force to begin planning repairs before a plane is damaged.
“So I get out of my reactive state, which is what I’m currently in, which means an aircraft breaks then I have to start building and repair it at inspection into a standpoint of ‘This is the next area we’re pretty sure something’s going to break. Why don’t we plan now for what type of inspection and start planning a type of repair,’” Lay said. “So this will help us with downtime and we’ll be able to turn jets quicker because we already know what to expect, where to go look, what we should be finding, why it occurred.”
Having a digital aircraft also means a manufacturer can be given the 3D renderings to have components built more quickly.
“In the past, all we had was the 2D digital drawings,” Lay said. “A lot of (aircraft technicians) don’t know how to read these ancient, 2D manufacturer drawings anymore. This is an opportunity for us, for once, to have high-fidelity, 3D CAD drawings that can be put right into manufacturing.”
Though Lay’s team will be the first to digitally scan an entire military aircraft, they’re not the first to use the technology.
In 2008, the Air Force announced it was working with Boeing to scan an A-10 wing so they could run models on it.
"What’s different for us is that we’re reclaiming an aircraft out of the Boneyard and then tearing it all the way down, having everything scanned and built back up so you get an entire aircraft. Further, we’re taking that to do the loads analysis. We’re going to simulate it actually flying, so that we can understand the future stresses on the airframe.
Lay said there was interest in making a digital scan of the B-52, the B-1′s sister squadron.
The right tool for the job
Another possible use for a digitally cloned plane is virtual reality. Lay and his team have only just begun to imagine a scenario where the technology can be used in regular aircraft maintenance and training.
“You can highlight it in the digital aircraft and he could pull it up on his computer and pull it up on a set of VR goggles and say ‘OK, I know exactly where I need to be,’ as he walks out to the aircraft he’s going to be working on,” Lay said. “Then we can do the same thing for virtually prototyping repairs. You can do a much better test fit since the aircraft is fully represented in the digital environment. You can actually build a repair and test it, take it to get 3D printed so that our first repair is going to have a much higher level of success of actually working.”
Jared is a freelance journalist, a former Marine and a veterans advocate living in Los Angeles.