One of my first projects with the Calhoun Honors Discovery Program (CHDP) was focused on autonomous airplane fuel tank inspection.
Airplane fuel tanks are located in the wings of the aircraft. They are small spaces that are barely big enough for a person to fit. However, if any “Foreign Object Debris” (FOD) is left in the fuel tank or if any damage occurs, it can threaten the operation of the airplane. Thus, it is very important to perform routine inspections of these fuel tanks. Due to their small size, this is difficult and dangerous for human mechanics.
For our project, my group investigated how to design an autonomous drone or robot that could inspect the fuel tank while monitored by a mechanic. We settled on a snake-like robot that could crawl through the tank like humans currently do. We imagine that this robot would have cameras and sensors such as LIDAR and air quality sensors. In our solution, the mechanic is still required, but they typically do not have to enter the fuel tank. If they do, the air quality sensors will ensure that it is safe for them. Placing the human at the center of our design is one of our top priorities in CHDP.
This work is currently being continued by a different group in CHDP. Instead of an autonomous robot, they are focusing on creating a stationary sensor module that can alert mechanics if FOD is detected.