Implementation and evaluation of an autonomous airborne ultrasound inspection system

Zhang, Dayi and Watson, Robert and MacLeod, Charles and Dobie, Gordon and Galbraith, Walter and Pierce, Gareth (2022) Implementation and evaluation of an autonomous airborne ultrasound inspection system. Nondestructive Testing and Evaluation, 37 (1). pp. 1-21. ISSN 1058-9759 (

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The mobility of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) offers significant benefits when deploying remote Non-Destructive Testing (NDT) inspections of large-scale assets. Ultrasonic inspection is primarily a contact-based NDT method, that grants the opportunity to remotely monitor the structural health of an industrial asset with enhanced internal integrity information. Presented in this paper is an implementation of an autonomous UAV system, equipped with an ultrasonic thickness measurement payload. This system is designed to conduct ultrasonic inspections of non-magnetic facilities and industrial infrastructure where surface adhesion cannot be achieved magnetically. Operating within a laboratory environment, this system autonomously positioned the transducer on a vertically mounted, unpainted, aluminium sample and completed an ultrasonic thickness measurement without manual intervention. An onboard laser scanner provided instantaneous UAV alignment and standoff error measurements versus the sample's surface normal vector. While inspecting a region of the aluminium sample with 12.92 mm nominal thickness, the UAV system demonstrated a measurement error of 0.03 mm. During this process, the standard deviation of the craft’s positional error was recorded to be below 63.26 mm, accompanied by an angular alignment error versus the surface normal vector of below 2.71°. The accuracy of the UAV deployed inspection, including thickness measurement accuracy and positional accuracy, depends on many factors. As such, transducer alignment constraints, electrical noise and UAV stability are investigated and discussed. Findings from this paper may be taken to inform future research regarding autonomous airborne ultrasonic inspection of constructed infrastructure and industrial facilities.