The aging fleet of aircraft in the United States amplifies the probability of structural integrity issues and accompanying complications. Inspection systems and repair practices are being developed to help enable the aviation community to maintain the commercial aging fleet more safely and cost effectively. These improved technologies will provide constant monitoring for the structural integrity of aircraft to ensure passenger safety and security. Sandia National Laboratories has worked in aviation safety for over 25 years in conjunction with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Sandia began its long history in the field when the FAA, in response to several aviation incidents, increased its research efforts to improve inspection, maintenance, and repair of commercial aircraft.
Sandia’s Airworthiness Assurance Center (AANC), which is operated for the FAA by the laboratory, conducts independent inspection and maintenance development, reliability, flight testing, and technology transfer activities to facilitate the use of improved practices into the industry. Areas of expertise for the laboratory include nondestructive inspection (NDI), advanced materials, engines, structural integrity, and a wide range of other airworthiness assurance areas.
A structural health monitoring program at AANC has collaborated with the Boeing Corporation, Delta Air Lines, Structural Monitoring Systems, Anodyne Electronics Manufacturing Corp, and the FAA to understand the technical gaps of implementing structural health monitoring on commercial aircraft and the potential effects on FAA regulations and guidance. Recent activity has included the development of built-in sensors that automatically and remotely assess an aircraft’s structural condition in real time and signal the need for maintenance. The team worked to provide the installation procedures for these new sensors to technicians and now oversees monitoring of the in-flight tests. Delta Air Lines and a foreign aircraft manufacturer have partnered with Sandia researchers in two separate programs to install about 100 sensors on their commercial aircraft. These sensors are now part of an FAA certification process that will make the sensors widely available to US airlines.
Once the sensors have passed through the FAA’s certification process, structural health monitoring in aircraft will help commercial airlines be more cost effective by basing maintenance on the actual condition of aircraft, rather than fixed schedules and inspection routines. Constant monitoring for structural health will also assist airlines by increasing oversight and decreasing aircraft downtime, particularly if sensors are mounted in hard-to-reach areas. Improved practices will reduce preventable aircraft failures as well as the accompanying safety issues. Benefits will be passed on to passengers, further ensuring safety and on-time flights.