Dry coupled ultrasonic non-destructive evaluation using an over-actuated unmanned aerial vehicle

Watson, Robert and Kamel, Mina and Zhang, Dayi and Dobie, Gordon and MacLeod, Charles and Pierce, S. Gareth and Nieto, Juan (2022) Dry coupled ultrasonic non-destructive evaluation using an over-actuated unmanned aerial vehicle. IEEE Transactions on Automation Science and Engineering, 19 (4). pp. 2874-2889. ISSN 1545-5955 (https://doi.org/10.1109/TASE.2021.3094966)

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Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are seeing increasing adoption to automated remote and in situ inspection of industrial assets, removing the need for hazardous manned access. Aerial manipulator architectures supporting pose-decoupled exertion of force and torque would further enable UAV deployment of contact-based transducers for sub-surface structural health assessment. Herein, for the first time, we introduce an over-actuated multirotor deploying a dry-coupled ultrasonic wheel probe as a novel means of wall thickness mapping. Using bi-axial tilting propellers in a unique tricopter layout, this system performs direct thrust vectoring for efficient omnidirectional flight and application of interaction forces. In laboratory testing, we demonstrate stable and repeatable probe deployment in a variety of representative asset inspection operations. We obtain a mean absolute error (MAE) in measured thickness of under 0.10 mm when measuring an aluminum sample with varying wall thickness. This is maintained over repeated exit and reentry of surface contact and when the sample is mounted vertically or on the underside of a 45° overhang. Furthermore, when rolling the probe dynamically across the sample surface in an area scanning modality, an MAE in wall thickness below 0.28 mm is recorded. Multi-modal operational confidence bounds of the system are thereby quantitatively defined. Note to Practitioners-Motivation for this article stems from the desire to enhance the speed and level of insight into structural health currently offered through remote aerial inspection processes. We approach this by integration of a thrust vectoring multirotor platform with a dry-coupling wheel probe for aerial ultrasonic thickness measurement. This system reliably presses the probe into the target surface and obtains point measurements across various surface orientations without a stabilizing frame. This broadens applicability and permits novel inspections where couplant gel would otherwise contaminate the surface and require manual cleaning. We profile thickness along a scanned linear section, a mode suited to corrosion mapping of large surface areas such as petrochemical storage tanks, pipework, or similar assets. We also make detailed consideration toward measurement accuracy, repeatability, and localization, an aspect commonly overlooked in literature. Future work to characterize variable friction effects currently limiting rolling scan speed and measurement coverage density may be beneficial. Quantitative study of the effectiveness of dry-couplant in the presence of any uncommon surface contaminants specific to a desired use-case is also advised.