(EDITOR’S NOTE: Aviation Resources and Consulting Services LLC, better known as ARCS Aviation, is a specialized subject matter expert and technology company focused on delivering training and operations solutions for aircraft pilots and other vehicle operators and maintainers, including sophisticated training systems, e-learning solutions, and flight line and repair shop job aids. Headquartered in Cookeville, ARCS Aviation was formed in 2012 by Barjes Alotaibi, a retired Chief Pilot, with a vision to use technology to improve efficiency, enhance competency, and save lives. In this guest post, the Founder and the company’s Business Development Consultant describe the evolution of a project for the U.S. Air Force Rapid Sustainment Office from the company’s perspective. On the weekend leading-up to the celebration of the nation’s independence, what better way to do so than celebrating a Tennessee-based company contributing to the work of the U.S. Air Force.)
By Barjes Alotaibi, Managing Director and Dan Ketchen, Business Development Consultant, ARCS Aviation
What do you get when you combine months of feasibility research, dozens of hours of proposal/project planning, and 15 minutes on a hot mic with the United States Air Force Rapid Sustainment Office (AFRSO)? Well, if you are ARCS Aviation or one of 10 other companies, you get to announce that you have received a prototype project from the AFRSO’s 2020 Virtual Pitch Day! ARCS received a contract award to develop an augmented reality (AR) presentation of paint thickness scanner data—we are making the aircraft painting process faster, cheaper, and safer.
Maintainers of any aircraft are responsible for ensuring paint and other coatings are sufficient to prevent corrosion of surfaces and resultant issues. It is a challenge to assess the condition of many painted surfaces, as visual inspection alone is often insufficient to identify problem areas. As a result, surfaces may not get needed paint, or may be needlessly painted when they could be in service. ARCS will enable maintainers to make better decisions regarding the need for painting and retouching through cutting-edge scanning and augmented reality technology.
Under the Air Force Research Lab’s requirements for a specific application, another vendor developed a scanner which measures the thickness of paint and other coatings on a metal or composite surface using electromagnetic waves in the terahertz band. However, while successfully fulfilling the intended application, the scanner has not seen widespread deployment. The next logical and intuitive step to spur adoption is to improve the user interface.
Currently, scanning results are shown on a small screen which shows basic numerical data for each layer of paint or coating. While accurate, results could be presented in far more user-friendly formats. Imagine wearing a non-intrusive AR headset—less disruptive to your field of view than even normal eye protection—and seeing the paint thickness, which is often imperceptible to the naked eye, presented as a heat map overlay on the surface as it is being scanned.
Working closely with the Corrosion Team at Warner-Robins Air Logistics Complex (WR-ALC) in Georgia, ARCS conducted a feasibility study under a contract with AFWERX, “the Air Force’s team of innovators who encourage and facilitate connections across industry, academia, and the military to create transformative opportunities and foster a culture of innovation. Our mission is to solve problems and enhance the effectiveness of the service by enabling thoughtful, deliberate, ground-up innovation.”
ARCS analyzed data collected from interviews with members of the WR-ALC Corrosion Team and identified three use cases favorable to our technology concept; solving these use cases will improve throughput of the corrosion team. First, during pre-painting (paint removal), knowing how much paint is on the surface helps tremendously with planning. Planes receive paint in the field—touch-ups, aesthetics, etc. Accurately assessing the amount of stripping chemicals that is needed reduces cost as well as treatment facility burden.
Second, paint supervisors perform quality inspections before and/or after drying. With the ARCS system, they will scan and review larger areas with the heat map feature. Small areas known for being problematic can also be scanned for spot checks.
Finally, painters will regularly or continuously measure the thickness of the coat as it is applied, adjusting as necessary to meet specifications. Every ounce of paint applied beyond the specification lessens the ability to meet mission goals due to the extra weight and causes the aircraft to consume more fuel, challenges faced in the commercial aviation industry as well.
Under ARCS’ contract with AFRSO, we have improved the end-user interface, making the scanner more user-friendly and functional by substantially upgrading the presentation of scanning results using commercially available gaming software and augmented reality technology. Midway through the project, ARCS has successfully presented scanner data in its numerical form in AR and is now finalizing an enhanced user interface, developing additional presentation formats, and anchoring data to the locations being scanned. In addition, ARCS has already determined the AR headset fits comfortably within the personal protective equipment used during painting.
The implications of this research and development project are considerable. In addition to the value the ARCS’ system can bring to any maintenance facility performing paint inspection, removal, and application, as aircraft maintainers expand the use of scanning technology, ARCS’ solution can be adapted to take inputs from these scanners, such as those used in non-destructive inspection/evaluation/testing, and present the data in their native or more user-friendly formats in the maintainer’s field of view, allowing for easier review of work performed by the maintainer as well as by inspectors and supervisors.