Sandia scientists and engineers work inside a B737 testbed, installing and acquiring data from SHM sensors. (Photo by Randy Montoya)
Nine Delta Air Lines commercial aircraft flying regular routes are carrying sensors that monitor their structural health along with their routine maintenance. These flight tests are part of a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification process that will make the sensors widely available to U.S. airlines.

Delta and a foreign aircraft manufacturer have partnered with Sandia National Laboratory to install about 100 sensors on their commercial aircraft. The flight tests complement laboratory performance testing at Sandia to enhance airline safety through a more comprehensive program of Structural Health Monitoring (SHM), which uses nondestructive inspection principles and built-in sensors that automatically and remotely assess an aircraft’s structural condition in real time, and signal the need for maintenance.

SHM eventually could help airlines save money by basing maintenance on the actual condition of the aircraft, rather than fixed schedules and inspection routines that might not be necessary. Should the FAA approve the sensors, they would be available for specific applications across the entire airline industry.

With today’s routine maintenance, inspectors often need to remove a cabin’s interior seats or galleys to conduct inspections. With the onboard sensors, the mechanics can plug in from a convenient location to acquire the sensor data without the time and cost of removing items. Researchers hope SHM eventually will permit the real-time condition of the aircraft to dictate maintenance.

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