RPA Airmen save time, money with new NDI technology

CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nevada — Nondestructive inspection technicians assigned to the 432nd Maintenance Squadron at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, are among the first Airmen to receive training on a new technology used to maintain and fix remotely piloted aircraft and parts.

The Q-800 Portable Shearography System equipment or laser shearography is an innovative technology used for NDI of MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. 

“This asset is specifically for our aircraft, and it’s in testing as of right now,” said Staff Sgt. Jason Walthers, 432nd MXS NDI technician. “There are 10 total in our inventory, each costing between $70,000 and $80,000.”

The system, a laser— based imaging process that induces stress into a part of an aircraft using heat that allows the thermal signature of the part to be visible to technicians through a computer. If there are differences in the thermal signatures, a defect will be registered since heat is trapped within the part itself.

With Airmen’s minds focused on the conservation of time and money, this new technology allows for maintenance to be performed on location. Previously, the only option was to send the aircraft to the manufacturer for repair, which often left aircraft out of commission for three to four months.

Airmen partnered with NDI instructors from Hill Air Force Base, to ensure a smooth transition between inspection capabilities.

“With this new capability, it now makes the process of finding discrepancies in our aircraft pieces in-house possible, opposed to the old way of sending the parts to General Atomics,” said Michael Gray, NDI technician, Hill AFB. “This saves time.”

Supporting a 24/7 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission that allows aircraft to be airborne for hours on end sometimes becomes a grueling maintenance task. 

Airmen are now able to complete an inspection in an eight-hour shift and although the technology presents many advantages, it also offers its share of challenges.

“The shearography is very sensitive to all elements around it, but what makes it a great inspection process is that it’s easier and faster to find discrepancies because of its sensitivity,” said Staff Sgt. Brock Hicks, 432nd MXS, NDI technician.

This new practice is sensitive to sound, movement and temperature, which could cause some challenges when using this new system, especially down range.

Equipped with a high-resolution camera, the Q-800 shearography sensor is the lightest and smallest of its kind which would allow deployed assets to be fixed and returned to flying status in higher succession than if they were returned to state-side bases for maintenance.

“I think the system is awesome,” said Staff Sgt. Brock Hicks, 432nd MXS, NDI section chief. “Before, we used the radiology process, which isn’t as safe as shearography, so this keeps the safety of all personnel in mind.” 

To ensure personnel were fully qualified, Airmen completed a two- week training course on the new NDI technology to ensure RPA assets could be properly fixed while maintaining the safety of NDI personnel.

Although still in a testing phase at the moment, the system will soon be available for fulltime use by all NDI technicians at Creech AFB.

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