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Optimism around tests of aircraft structural monitoring sensors

AUSTRALIA-based Structural Monitoring Systems reports that
its aircraft structural sensing system is progressing smoothly through its

SMS is pitching its Comparative Vacuum Monitoring (CVM)
technology as a cost-effective alternative to manual inspections of structural
faults in commercial aircraft. Currently, these manual inspections require
engineers to disassemble the aircraft in order to access the area being tested.

CVM sensors are extremely sensitive, and when installed on a
structural surface, are able to monitor the development of cracks in real time.

SMS is working with Delta Air Lines, the FAA Airworthiness
Assurance Centre at Sandia National Laboratories, and Boeing to test the system
in the US.

In Q1 2014, the collaborators installed 70 CVM sensors on
seven Delta-operated Boeing 737-NG aircraft, and are collecting and collating
the monitoring data from the sensors, so regulatory bodies can certify the
technology for installation on commercial aircraft.

The company and its partners are also pushing for CVM sensor
technology to be included in the Boeing Service Bulletin as an approved
application technology for the relevant centre-wing section inspection which is
the area of the aircraft being monitored, and inspected during these tests.

The aim of the tests is for the CVM technology to be granted
a global Alternative Means of Compliance (global “AMOC”) designation from both
Boeing and the FAA, which will then allow all 737 operators to use the

Eventually, SMS hopes that its sensor technology can be
approved for use in other areas of application and on multiple aircraft types.
The database of information compiled by this first test round is expected to
accelerate approval for other AMOCs.

According to SMS, CVM technology will allow aircraft OEMs
and operators to more efficiently manage their maintenance routines, which can
be very costly since aircraft need to be grounded for maintenance while
inspections are completed.

The SMS sensor technology is specifically designed to
provide a technology-based solution to maintain aircraft safety and
airworthiness, and to “keep planes in the air”, while allowing airlines to base
their maintenance schedules on the actual condition of the aircraft, rather
than fixed schedules and inspection routines.

According to SMS, after nearly a year of tests, virtually
all of the 70 sensors have been performing as expected. Five of the sensors
have returned error messages related to installation inconsistencies caused by
the lack of familiarity on the part of maintenance crews. SMS also points out
that the error messages confirm the self-checking functionality built into the
CVM technology platform.

In addition to the in-flight testing portion of the
Programme, Sandia is also performing rigorous laboratory tests involving CVM
sensors to simulate the multitude of complex stresses occurring on the various
areas of an aircraft’s airframe while in flight.

According to Sandia’s Dr. Dennis Roach, the sensor
technology provides certainty and mitigates against human error.

“You have the sensor in place, you know it works and it’s
giving you a proper signal, whereas an inspector must manually orient the
inspection probe properly each time and there are always concerns about human
vigilance when inspections become time-consuming or tedious.”

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